Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Rocky Ford Growers Association working to provide Colorado consumers with safe and tasty melons

By Teresa Farney Published: August 7, 2013

If there ever was a reason for a parade, festival or governor's proclamation, it would be to welcome this year's crop of Rocky Ford melons.

And not only because the melons are so tasty and their arrival is so anticipated. It also would be to call attention to the farmers in Rocky Ford, with a 100-plus-year reputation as the "Sweet Melon Capital," who have taken action to reclaim that identity, which was threatened in 2011 and 2012 by the worst food-borne illness outbreak in decades.

A Rocky Ford farm wasn't even responsible for the outbreak; it was a cantaloupe farm in Holly, about 90 miles away. That farm sent cantaloupe infected with listeria, a pathogen known for its high mortality rate, across the country.

With all the media attention about tainted cantaloupes, consumers became wary of melons. To gain consumer confidence, the melon growers in Rocky Ford formed the Rocky Ford Growers Association. To label melons as "Rocky Ford Cantaloupe," a trademarked name, a grower must be a member of this association and produce melons within a specific growing region.

The association, with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has improved the food safety handling practices in its packing houses.

Michael Hirakata, one of the farmers in the association, has been leading the move for change. He was upgrading his two large packing facilities when the listeria scare occurred. For Hirakata and the other melon farmers in Rocky Ford, the outbreak had a silver lining: food safety researchers nationwide were readily available to offer advice.

"We were in a pretty unique situation where we could actually ask industry experts their advice on how to build a cantaloupe packing facility," said Hirakata.

"Whereas before, we probably would've just done what we thought was right."

Water is the issue. Before the upgrades to Hirakata's facility and other melon packing houses, cantaloupes were washed in recycled water, which brings a higher risk of cross contamination. If one melon has bacteria that float off into the water of the washing tub, the bacteria can attach to other melons. Now, melon-washing facilities used by association farmers have fresh water hitting the melon rinds each time they are brought into the plant.

To further assure consumers that they are getting melons from farmers in Rocky Ford, the association has developed a sticker with a bar code. Each melon gets a sticker that can be scanned. The bar code will tell you the date each melon was packed and from what packing plant. Melons can be traced to the exact field where it ripened.

Safety tips

Consumers need to follow some safety tips when they get the melons home.

According to Linda Larsen at about.com, the crenelated and webbed surface of some melon skins can trap bacteria. For this reason, the Rocky Ford Growers Association, with the USDA, has developed a tip sheet for washing and storing cantaloupes.

"Unlike red wine, cantaloupe does not get better with age," said Diane Mulligan, in charge of marketing for the association. "Plan to eat your cantaloupe within four days of purchase. The sooner the better."

When you are ready to eat a cantaloupe, place it in a colander or bowl in the sink. With water running, scrub the entire surface of the rind, and take your time.

If you prefer, you can blanch the rind by placing the cantaloupe in hot water.

"A USDA study showed that immersing whole, unpeeled melons in 170 degree water for 3 minutes killed the bacteria on the webbed skin but didn't affect the texture of flavor of the flesh," Larsen said.

You might especially want to take this precaution when serving cantaloupe to very young or elderly people.

Mulligan recommends storing washed cantaloupes on the kitchen counter at room temperature of 72 degrees or below for up to two days. If it will be longer than two days before you plan on eating it, store washed whole melons in the refrigerator.

Table talk video: Washing

cantaloupe

The Rocky Ford Growers Association recommends washing cantaloupe under running water while scrubbing the rind with a brush.

Visit gazette.com or scan the QR code below with your smartphone to watch a video demonstration of the process.

Contest

Cantaloupe Creation Cook-Off

11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 20, America the Beautiful Park, 126 Cimino Drive, free

Safety tips

Consumers need to follow some safety tips when they get the melons home.

According to Linda Larsen at about.com, the crenelated and webbed surface of some melon skins can trap bacteria. For this reason, the Rocky Ford Growers Association, with the USDA, has developed a tip sheet for washing and storing cantaloupes.

"Unlike red wine, cantaloupe does not get better with age," said Diane Mulligan, in charge of marketing for the association. "Plan to eat your cantaloupe within four days of purchase. The sooner the better."

When you are ready to eat a cantaloupe, place it in a colander or bowl in the sink. With water running, scrub the entire surface of the rind, and take your time.

If you prefer, you can blanch the rind by placing the cantaloupe in hot water.

"A USDA study showed that immersing whole, unpeeled melons in 170 degree water for 3 minutes killed the bacteria on the webbed skin but didn't affect the texture of flavor of the flesh," Larsen said.

You might especially want to take this precaution when serving cantaloupe to very young or elderly people.

Mulligan recommends storing washed cantaloupes on the kitchen counter at room temperature of 72 degrees or below for up to two days. If it will be longer than two days before you plan on eating it, store washed whole melons in the refrigerator.

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