Listeria Outbreak Still Haunts Colorado's Cantaloupe Growers

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 14, 2013 11:48 am

Two years after cantaloupe were linked to one of the worst foodborne outbreaks in U.S. history, lawyers have filed a fresh round of lawsuits. Meanwhile, farmers are trying to win back customers after their signature crop was tarred by a broad brush.

Only one Colorado farm supplied cantaloupes contaminated with the listeria bacteria that killed 33 people and sickened at least 147 more in 28 states in 2011.

But that farmer sold his fruit as coming from Rocky Ford, Colo., and the longtime family farmers there, and the whole town, took a huge hit.

"The whole community is very proud of the cantaloupe. The Rocky Ford high school mascot is the 'Meloneer,'" says Mike Hirakata, a fourth generation melon grower here, "very proud to be Meloneers."

The tainted fruit came from a farm 90 miles away, but Rocky Ford farmers had never trademarked their local name and couldn't keep others from using it. That had never been a problem until 2011. The area's farmers have now legally protected their name, and they're taking other measures to convince the public that the cantaloupe they've built a 100-year reputation on are safe.

"If we wanted to keep going, we figured we needed to make changes that were for the better for our industry and for the customers," Hirakata says on a tour of his packing shed, newly refurbished with hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment.

He shows off the melon washing station that sprays his cantaloupes with clean water and sanitizer before the fruit are sent to an enormous cooling room. There, the melons are rapidly chilled to further inhibit the growth of any bacteria that might have survived the bath.

Farmers and the state of Colorado also invested in research that found that consumers play an important role in preventing cantaloupe-related outbreaks.

Their survey found that "more than half of consumers weren't washing cantaloupe at all before consuming them," says Marisa Bunning, a food safety researcher at Colorado State University.

"It already looked clean, and they weren't going to be eating the rind. It didn't occur to them to wash it," she says.

But researchers now believe that the deadly bacteria that caused the outbreak didn't penetrate the fruit until consumers cut into it, pushing listeria from the outer rind into the flesh they would eat with each pass of a knife.

"The knife needs to be washed between cuts," Bunning says, "just to be assured you're not causing any cross-contamination from the rind to the flesh."

Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers hired a public relations firm to help get that word out, and to tell people about the new safety measures they're taking to make sure that what happened at the one bad farm in 2011 will never happen at their facilities.

Farmer Hirakata says he never wants to go through something like that again, and not just because of the financial losses his family suffered. For over a week after the outbreak was first identified, he wasn't sure whether melons from his farm were making people sick.

"It was just kind of a sick-to-your-stomach feeling for that whole time, a lot of sleepless nights," he recalls.

Consumers appear to be forgiving, so far. Last year, Rocky Ford growers sold every cantaloupe they harvested, but they only planted 20 percent of a normal crop. This year they're planting more, but still not enough to send any out of state.

At an urban farmers market recently, several native Coloradans echoed shopper Bob Purvine's sentiment about the outbreak.

"It had us all a little paranoid," he said, but "probably wouldn't prevent me from buying the cantaloupe when it comes time again."

Why? Rocky Ford melons, he says, are the "best cantaloupe ever."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two years ago this month, contaminated cantaloupe were being shipped across the country from a single farm in Colorado. That fruit would kill 33 people and sicken many more in a deadly Listeria outbreak. Last week, an attorney representing the victims filed lawsuits against grocers in 11 states. The farm responsible is now bankrupt.

And as Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports, for other cantaloupe growers in the area who had nothing to with the outbreak, the past two years have been a struggle.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: The summer of 2011 was rough for cantaloupe farmers. Every day for weeks, there was more bad news: more people getting sick, more deaths.

Mike Hirakata is a fourth-generation cantaloupe grower in Rocky Ford, Colorado.

MIKE HIRAKATA: We always did what we could to keep everything safe. So it was just kind of a sick-to-your-stomach feeling for that whole time.

WHITNEY: Investigators figured out pretty quickly that the bad melons were coming from a single farm, and that it was 90 miles away from Rocky Ford. But the damage had already been done. Because that farmer had been wrongly marketing his cantaloupe under the Rocky Ford name, Hirakata says, growers there felt unfairly smeared.

HIRAKATA: The whole community is very proud of the cantaloupe, and the Rocky Ford High School's mascot is a Meloneer.

WHITNEY: When the local high school sports jerseys read Meloneers, it's not surprising that farmers here are reluctant to abandon their signature crop and try to grow something else. So they're trying to make sure that what happened at the problem farm down the road never happens here. They invested big in all-new processing and cold storage equipment.

HIRAKATA: What we're looking at, basically, is a set of brushes which will clean the cantaloupe, and then we have a set of rollers. On top of that, we have a spray bar that's spraying water...

WHITNEY: This new washing station at Hirakata's farm is the result of research that farmers here and the state of Colorado paid for to try to improve cantaloupe safety after the outbreak. They also found that consumers could be more careful. Few people wash cantaloupes before cutting into them, and that can be dangerous. Each slice of a knife can push bacteria living on the fruit's outer rind into the flesh inside.

The farmers hired Kate Mulligan's public relations firm to help get that message out and highlight changes they've made in processing and storage.

KATE MULLIGAN: What they were doing to enhance their safety procedures, and the fact that they've had 126 years of a perfect safety record in Rocky Ford.

WHITNEY: The growers don't have a big advertising budget, so Mulligan's trying to get local farmers face time with city dwellers. That means doing events with chefs in Denver and at the state fair, and inviting the public to see their farms - like these elementary-aged kids bused in from Denver.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Each one of you can get one cantaloupe.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Rusty, if you get...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I found one.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: I found one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you find it, you can go ahead and pick it.

WHITNEY: The message seems to be getting out.

What does Rocky Ford cantaloupe mean to you?

BOB PURVINE: The best cantaloupe ever.

WHITNEY: Bob Purvine, shopping at a farmer's market in Colorado Springs, says he thinks the 2011 outbreak was an anomaly.

PURVINE: Yeah, it had U.S. all a little paranoid. Probably wouldn't prevent me from buying the cantaloupe when it comes time again.

WHITNEY: Fellow shopper Sandy Baker isn't worried, either. She's always looked forward to when Rocky Ford cantaloupes hit store shelves, and this year is no different.

SANDY BAKER: Yeah, I usually look for them, because they're the best.

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: Yeah.

WHITNEY: Rocky Ford melon growers like Mike Hirakata were used to basking in praise like that before the outbreak. Now, he says, even though it wasn't their fault, farmers here realize that they need to stay on top of their own reputation.

HIRAKATA: If we wanted to keep going, we figured we needed to make changes that were for the better for our industry and for the customers.

WHITNEY: Last year, people bought every cantaloupe Rocky Ford farmers grew, but they only planted 20 percent of a normal crop. This year, they're harvesting about a third as many as normal. That's an improvement, but still not enough for them to resume selling the melons out of state, like they did before the outbreak.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.