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Stakes Remain High For Colorado Cantaloupe Growers

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Cantaloupe (credit: CBS)

Cantaloupe (credit: CBS)

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DENVER (CBS4) – Last summer 30 people died after eating tainted cantaloupe grown in Colorado. Only Jensen Farms was linked to the listeria outbreak, but the stigma has been tough to overcome for all Colorado cantaloupe growers.

Consumer confidence played a big role in how many melons were grown this year. Rocky Ford cantaloupes, a Colorado pleasure for decades, were wrongly mixed up last year with Jensen Farms, which was connected to listeria bacteria deaths. Consumers haven’t forgotten.

“It was an unfortunate incident, I felt really bad that it damaged the whole Rocky Ford image,” shopper Lisa Schwinghammer said.

Food and Drug Administration investigators said Jensen Farms failed to properly store and wash their cantaloupes, allowing the bacteria to flourish. Along with the 30 people who died, 146 became ill in 28 states.

Those that are growing cantaloupes in southeastern Colorado know the stakes remain high.

“They’ve been growing these melons since the early 1900s,” Diane Mulligan with the Rocky Ford Growers Association said. “To them, this is not just a livelihood, it’s their life.”

Mulligan says the newly formed Rocky Ford Growers Association spent almost $1 million for a state-of-the-art machine that washes and disinfects melons.

“The consumer can be assured that they’re doing everything possible to put out a really safe product,” Mulligan said.

“I felt that was a real shame they had to invest the money in their brand, but it was probably well spent given that now in the mind of the public they have a clean image,” Schwinghammer said.

One year later the consumer confidence in Colorado cantaloupes has returned.

“I think those things are just risks of eating food, it’s just part of a food chain, sometimes things happen,” shopper Lucila Williams said. “I don’t think it’s an inherent issue that we have to deal with all the time.”

Since it’s better to be safe than sorry, the Rocky Ford Cantaloupe Association reminds customers to wash fruit and the knife used to cut cantaloupes.

Jensen Farms is facing lawsuits and has filed for bankruptcy, but reportedly the farm has plans to grow cantaloupes again.

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