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Farmers Fear Listeria Has Ruined Selling Season

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Cantaloupe (credit: CBS)

Cantaloupe (credit: CBS)

DENVER (AP) – A multistate Listeria outbreak linked to a Colorado farm has the state’s melon farmers worried that their prime selling season has been ruined.

In Rocky Ford, farmer Greg Smith this week laid off his lone farm stand employee because he said customers all but vanished when news of the outbreak spread.

The outbreak has killed as many as four people. Colorado officials said Friday the contaminated melons were whole fruit from a Jensen Farms in the Rocky Ford region and have been recalled.

Angry at reporters and camera crews reporting on the tainted melons, Smith said, “You’ve basically put a .30-caliber bullet between our eyes.”

Mike Bartolo, a Rocky Ford-based vegetable crops specialist for Colorado State University, has been fielding questions from the two dozen or so farmers who make a living selling Rocky Ford cantaloupes. He said the Listeria outbreak is a major blow to the farmers, but it would have been worse if it occurred a few weeks ago.

“If this thing had happened at the beginning of the season, instead of the end, it would have been just devastating,” Bartolo said. “As it is, I think it’s too soon to know what will happen next year.”

Bartolo said the “Rocky Ford cantaloupes” name has no legal protection, such as the strict legal definition of a Vidalia onion, to prevent farmers outside the region from using the name. In fact, he said, Rocky Ford was a major melon-seed producer from the 1900s to 1940s, selling melon seeds nationwide under the name “Rocky Ford” or “Rocky Sweets,” so there may be cantaloupes from far away sold under the name.

Colorado Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina said he understands the anger of other farmers who feel tarnished by the outbreak. However, health officials had to act on what they knew at the time — and the victims had reported eating cantaloupe from Rocky Ford, he said.

“We now know that it’s one farm in Holly. It should be reassuring to growers that we’ve identified the grower,” Urbina said.

Not everyone has been avoiding the melons, despite the recall.

Christine Obert, a Lakewood teacher, said Friday she rushed to her local King Soopers grocery store earlier this week to buy Rocky Ford cantaloupes after she heard about the recall. Several chains have pulled the melons off shelves, not wanting to take chances.

“I was afraid they were going to pull them off the shelves. I believe in supporting our local growers, and those are my favorite cantaloupe. I drove through Rocky Ford and bought their melon. I had some last night,” she said.

Cody Edge, 21, snacked on a granola bar outside a grocery store and said he likes cantaloupe at any meal but won’t eat it now after the outbreak. He said he had been unaware of the recall.

“I’m not going to eat it after that,” Edge said.

- By Steven K. Paulson, AP Writer

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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