When the listeria outbreak first made news, people were told not to eat Rocky Ford cantaloupe. But as it turned out, the infected cantaloupes came from a farm 100 miles away from where the famous Rocky Ford cantaloupes get their name. For years, growers in Rocky Ford have wanted to protect their famous name; this outbreak has rekindled their efforts. CPR's Zachary Barr reports.
Reporter Zachary Barr: Rocky Ford and cantaloupe are nearly inseparable. The town has been home to cantaloupe farmers for more than 100 years. Residents firmly believe their land grows the best cantaloupes on Earth. And to top it off, when you cheer on Rocky Ford high school, you’re rooting for the Meloneers. Plainly put: this is cantaloupe country. Brian Knapp is fourth generation to work on the family farm.
Brian Knapp: The Rocky Ford has a lot of history. The area we’re in, soil, climate, cold nights and warm days, it’s a lot of different aspects of why it’s such a good quality cantaloupe.
Reporter: There are about half a dozen commercial cantaloupe growers in the Rocky Ford area. Knapp says for years, this group has been annoyed by other farmers adopting their good name.
Knapp: There’s a few other farmers are trying to grow cantaloupes outside the area and they try to use the Rocky Ford name but their quality and flavor is not near as good.
Reporter: Whose product is best is debatable. But it is true that the Rocky Ford name is valuable. Jensen Farms -- 100 miles to the east -- used the name. That’s the farm linked to the listeria outbreak.
Knapp: Their cantaloupe has a point of origin sticker on the cantaloupe that says Rocky Fords. F-O-R-D- S. Not Rocky Ford. And they’re using that to tie their product to Rocky Ford.
Reporter: The thing is, there’s no such thing as a Rocky Ford cantaloupe. The melons that grow here are grown elsewhere, too. Rocky Ford is just a name - anyone can use it. But Knapp believes the Jensens label is misleading and it’s a big reason early advisories warned people not to eat cantaloupe from the entire Rocky Ford region.
Knapp: For Food and Drug to come out and tie Rocky Ford cantaloupe to this hysteria is wrong because they came out and just geographically came up with a term of Rocky Ford region.
Reporter: But health officials say they erred on the side of caution. And shoppers did, too. This is typical in other well publicized food-borne outbreaks. Remember that contaminated spinach? Wendy Fink-Weber is communications director for Western Growers, an agricultural trade association that represents farmers in California and Arizona.
Wendy Fink-Weber: What we learned from the e-coli outbreak in 2006 was that it didn’t matter that the contamination came from one field, one farmer, everyone everywhere stopped eating spinach.
Reporter: Fink-Weber says the California farmers' response was smart. Nearly every spinach grower in the state quickly agreed to strict new safety standards. But the recovery was slow.
Fink-Weber: They were depressed for years. It’s just come back to the level of sales that it was about a year ago.
Reporter: Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers face many of the same challenges -- and more. Their industry’s outbreak has been far more deadly and, unlike spinach farmers, they don’t have their own trade association. So Rocky Ford growers are thinking about forming a proper coalition. But not all cantaloupe growers would be invited. Again, farmer Brian Knapp.
Knapp: That perimeter may be 15 miles from Rocky Ford or something like that, it’s not set in stone, we haven’t figured that all out but that a process we’re working through now.
Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Tom Lipetzki says producers do sometimes join together to market their product.
Lipetzki: But in this case it sounds like the growers want to take it one step further and actually create a certification requirement that only cantaloupe marketed from those marketing regions could be called Rocky Ford cantaloupe.
Reporter: This sort of geographic restriction is like what they’ve done with Champagne in France, and it would be a first in Colorado. But even if they get that protection, Rocky Ford grower Michael Harikata says they’re facing an uphill battle.
Michael Harikata: I was proud to be from Rocky Ford. And now it’s, 'oh, you’re from Rocky Ford, what did you do to these people?' For 100 years we built up this name and now the name is working against us.
Reporter: So at the same time they want to set the Rocky Ford name apart, they know that the entire cantaloupe market is in trouble. Harikata and Knapp are weighing whether to even plant cantaloupe next year.
[Photo: CPR/Zachary Barr]