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Listeria outbreak changed farming in Rocky Ford

Listeria outbreak changed farming in Rocky Ford

ROCKY FORD, Colo. - Two years and $1 million later, Michael Hirakata's farm looks very different from before the 2011 listeria outbreak.

"We want everybody to know what improvements we've made, what we're doing and what we plan to do in the future," Hirakata said.

The tainted cantaloupes came from a farm 90 miles away from Hirakata's farm. Hirakata said the state didn't force him to make changes. He decided to because he wanted to be more transparent.

He started by hiring a full-time safety manager. Then, he installed a new system and sanitizer for washing melons. Now, the water used to clean the melons only passes through them once.

"If there is any bacteria, we wash it off and if it's on there, it lessens the threat for cross contamination," Hirakata said.

Customers can't see any noticeable changes when purchasing melons. The biggest changes are in the production and post-production stages.

"More sanitizing our equipment to better agricultural practice," said farmer Eric Hanagan.

Hirakata now tracks how long melons are kept cooling. The goal is to chill the melons quickly to kill off any bacteria that survived the washing.

"We're getting to our shipping temperature very rapidly," Hirakata said.

But a million-dollar investment can't replace some common sense practices.

"Wash it thoroughly, use a clean knife and don't keep it for more than four days after you cut it," Hanagan said.

After the outbreak, Rocky Ford farmers created the Rocky Ford Growers Association to let customers know their melons are safe to eat.

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