Colorado cantaloupe grower-shippers will meet with the state’s agriculture commissioner to discuss proposed changes to the state’s cantaloupe industry in the wake of a deadly listeria outbreak linked to Granada, Colo.-based Jensen Farms.

Some industry members are wary of increased government involvement, but Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar stressed that any changes would be grower-driven. The meeting will likely take place Nov. 14 or Nov. 21, Salazar said.

“We don’t want to create another layer of bureaucracy,” Salazar said Nov. 3. “It has to be a growers’ organization that they put together.”

Among the preliminary ideas being floated, Salazar said, is a Rocky Ford-branded label rewarding shippers with rigorous food safety programs. To assure high food safety standards, the state could facilitate training through workshops run by the department, Colorado State University or the Produce Marketing Association, Salazar said. State laboratories also could be used for testing.

Because of a tight state budget, department funds available for such a program would be limited, though Salazar said “whatever we can squeeze, we will squeeze.” He said a program could be done relatively inexpensively — a levy on growers of one penny per cantaloupe, for example.

Joshua Johnson, president of Commerce City, Colo.-based Ringer & Son Brokerage Co. Inc., is concerned about the government getting too involved.

“I definitely don’t think government is the right answer,” he said.

Johnson said that Primus Labs, which gave a clean bill of health to Jensen Farms, and other third-party certifiers do a good job. The problem in the case of Jensen Farms was that Primus did its audit at the very beginning of the season, he said.

For audits to be effective, they may need to be done several times a season, Johnson said, which creates a new problem. Audits are expensive, and few growers could afford to pay for several per season, he said.

Gary Shane, co-owner of Gary Shane Farms, La Junta, Colo., said a bigger regulatory presence could be fatal to Rocky Ford.

“We already have too much government,” Shane said. “If we get more regulations, it will put the small growers out of business, and everybody here is small. It would be the demise of Rocky Ford.”

Looking ahead

Salazar is optimistic about Rocky Ford cantaloupes bouncing back in 2012.

“Our biggest priority is to undo the damage done and regain consumer confidence,” he said. “Rocky Ford has a long history of being famous around the world for its cantaloupes.”

Johnson said it’s a shame that Rocky Ford shippers have to pay for the mistakes of a single shipper, especially when that shipper is 80 miles from the Rocky Ford region. That said, he shares the commissioner’s optimism.

“I think demand will end up being the same,” he said. “The public will let it go by the wayside, like they did with tomatoes and spinach (recalls).”

Shane, however, is less optimistic.

“We’re right on the fence whether we’ll even do cantaloupes next year,” he said. “Some buyers I’ve talked to said that after six to 12 weeks, volumes go back up and everyone forgets. But that Rocky Ford name is out there, even though Jensen shouldn’t have been calling them Rocky Ford. Next summer, as soon as anyone mentions Rocky Ford and cantaloupes, the whole thing will blow up again.”

Michael Hirakata, co-owner of Rocky Ford-based Hirakata Farms, and one of the growers who will meet with Salazar, agreed.

“We are very worried,” he said.

Prices fall

According to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report, October cantaloupe prices were basically unchanged from a year ago, falling from $14 in October 2010 to $13.90 this year.

But grower-shippers said those numbers are misleading because of lower volumes in October that drove prices up. Among the reasons shippers cited: California shippers ceasing production early because of weak demand in late September; a production gap in Arizona; and a whitefly outbreak that reduced fruit size and yields.

On Nov. 1, the USDA reported a price of $10-11 for one-half cartons of cantaloupes 9s from California and Arizona, down from $12.50-13 last year at the same time.

From 2006 to 2010, early November prices averaged about $15 per carton, according to USDA data.

Why do deaths and illnesses continue to increase?

As of Nov. 2, the outbreak had killed 29 people and sickened 139 in 28 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers have risen constantly since the source of the outbreak was pinpointed in September.

Why is that, given that Jensen began its recall in the first half of September?

Part of the reason, said Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, is the lag time between when illnesses are reported at the local level and when they reach the federal government.

But the main reason is listeria’s long incubation period. Listeriosis can incubate in humans for up to two months before symptoms appear, said Lola Russell, a CDC spokeswoman.

Also, Russell said, while most people have gotten tested within two days of having symptoms, some have waited as many as 35 days, further delaying reporting.