The director of the Farm Service Agency in Otero and Crowley counties told the Peublo Chieftain an ongoing investigation into ties to a listeria outbreak and Rocky Ford cantaloupes will show that the contamination did not come from the Lower Arkansas Valley.
Chuck Hanagan said, "Everybody eats this (Rocky Ford) cantaloupe. Heck, the field workers that are picking it and all the farmers are eating it every day. If it's contaminated here, why isn't anyone sick here?" he asked. "It doesn't make sense to me. … Somebody in the handling system may be to blame. They may be putting it in contaminated trucks, unloading it in a warehouse with contaminated handling . . . There are several other ways it could be contaminated on that other end.”
Mike Bartolo, an extension agent for Colorado State University, said the state health department's focus on Rocky Ford is like "a dagger through the heart" for the agricultural area, which has a melon as its mascot.
Farmers are convinced the listeria problem is in warehousing, trucking or other distribution areas, Bartolo said, because melons are cooled and washed in a chlorine bath before shipping. Listeria occurs naturally in many soil conditions, and growing and production methods are in place to keep contamination out of the food chain, he said.
The growers are frustrated with the state health department announcements that seemed like an "undiscriminating nuclear bomb" rather than zeroing in on a specific problem, he added.
State health officials said they are working with federal health agencies to test all possible contact points for the melons, including distribution centers and the farms.
In July and August 1991, more than 400 people in the western U.S. were sickened by salmonella poisoning that was traced to cantaloupes and melon growers throughout the West paid the price.
"I remember there were a number of farmers who lost their melon crops over that scare," recalled Frank Sobolik, the former Colorado State University Extension Agent for Pueblo County. "That time, the suspicion was the tainted melons were coming up from West Texas."
Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, a food biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins (left, sorta as shown), said contamination investigations can end that way — a dead end that just points towards a general region. That's what happened in the summer of 1991. The hunt for the salmonella-tainted melon source ended without finding the source. All the evidence was either eaten or thrown away.
A table of cantaloupe- (or rock melon) related outbreaks is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/cantaloupe-related-outbreaks.