Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Colorado cantaloupe to get a $175,000 makeover after listeria hysteria

Colorado cantaloupes are ripening quickly this season, and so are concerns that the listeria hysteria over last year's outbreak could put a damper on sales of the fruit. So the Colorado Department of Agriculture, headed by commissioner John Salazar, is pushing a project to improve the image of the vilified melons -- and fast.

The bad melons, which wound up killing thirty people, were quickly traced to Jensen Farms in Holly -- but not before the taint spread not just to Rocky Ford melons, but produce from around the state. On September 11, the FDA even sent out a warning not to eat "Rocky Ford Cantaloupes" shipped by Jensen Farms -- even though that farm was a hundred miles away from Rocky Ford.

"Certainly the outbreak last year was a tragedy for everyone involved," says Tom Lipetzky, markets division director for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. "From our perspective, the growers in the Rocky Ford area really weren't at the heart at the problem, but they saw their brand and image tarnished."

Other products ranging from melons to pumpkins were tarnished, too, he notes, with some retailers going out of their way to advertise that produce was not from Colorado.

"We knew there were some real concerns," Lipetzky says. "We needed to help growers, and also protect Colorado." So the ag department began working on a several-pronged approach for a coordinated campaign to improve the image of Colorado's melons.

"We just met last Friday with a group of producers in Rocky Ford to begin this brand-visioning process," he says. "It hasn't really been a brand; it's becoming a brand." And it's a work in progress; the two agencies that will share the contract to define that brand -- BrandWorks and Mulligan, both out of Colorado -- just got on board a week ago.

But the ag department has been involved since the outbreak, working with growers and securing a grant for classes. "Almost every grower was taking food-safety classes," Lipetzky says. "I'm really proud of them for stepping forward and being very pro-active." (Program director Tracy Vanderpool was recently lauded at the Governor's Mansion for educating "hundreds of Colorado's fruit and vegetable growers on the importance of developing and implementing food safety plans." His efforts, according to the department, "have and will continue to be integral to restoring consumer confidence in Rocky Ford cantaloupe.")

And then the state put out the RFP for a $175,000 promotional campaign that will run this summer and fall. "First," Lipetzky explains, "we really want to talk about some of the changes the industry is taking.... Part of the campaign will be to talk about the new measures in terms of assuring better food safety, technology for trace-back, and also some of the changes in the packing sheds to streamline the process and be more safe."

But to make sure it's not all wonky, the campaign will also includes advertising and events to get consumers to "remember that great, fresh taste of Rocky Ford cantaloupe," he says.

"We're in good position," Lipetzky adds, "but the clock is ticking for a really early harvest."

The melons could hit the market by July 20 -- just over five weeks from now.

Last fall, Westword offered a free makeover for Colorado melons. Read Melanie Asmar's "Five ways to improve Colorado cantaloupes' image" here.