Colo. canataloupe farmers hope new crop puts listeria fears in the past

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ROCKY FORD, Colo. -- Cantaloupe lovers, get ready. The first batch of melons from Colorado's cantaloupe country will arrive in local supermarkets on Friday.

This is a critically important time for Rocky Ford farmers. They're hoping to bounce back from last year's listeria outbreak that sickened a number of consumers and dealt their business a severe blow.

"People... took it real personally what happened last year and so I think it's just real important for the town's mental state of mind that we have a good year," said Gail Knapp of Knapp's Farm Market.

"We want people raving about Rocky Ford cantaloupe and how good they are and to quickly forget about what happened last year."

Contaminated cantaloupe at a farm 90 miles east of Rocky Ford infected 150 people in 28 states, killing three dozen.

As a result, cantaloupe sales in Colorado plummeted. In the wake of the outbreak, farmers in Rocky Ford have made a number of changes.

A new growers association requires food safety training and audits at each member's farm. A new packing shed is designed to eliminate the possibility of contamination. And each box of cantaloupe will now be electronically tracked.

"It's a huge undertaking," said Michael Hirakata of Hirakata Farms, owner of the $800,000 packing shed. "It's not business as usual anymore. We've got to put out a great product that people have confidence in."

The future of Rocky Ford, population 4,000, hangs in the balance.

"It's real important," said Knapp. "It's a big industry here."

The cantaloupes, which growers insist are sweeter and juicier than any other melons, will be available at metro Denver King Soopers stores.

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