The Colorado cantaloupe farmers allegedly responsible in a fatal listeria outbreak that killed 33 and caused hundreds to get sick have been charged in federal court.
Ryan Jensen, 33, and Eric Jensen, 37 pleaded not guilty Sept. 26 to six misdemeanor counts related to the selling of adulterated food into the market, after they turned themselves into federal marshals. The Jensen brothers are fourth-generation farmers from the southeastern Colorado town of Holly.
The cantaloupe listeria outbreak happened two years ago this month, and has been linked to Jensen Farms. An investigation into the fatal food illness led officials from half-eaten cantaloupe from the refrigerators of listeria patients to area grocery stores, and then ultimately to the Colorado farm. The Denver Post reports that an additional 10 people who became ill after eating the cantaloupe infested with the listeria bacteria have now also died.
Legal counsel for the Jensen brothers has stated emphatically that the Colorado farm cooperated fully with investigators since the initial moments of the listeria outbreak. The attorneys stopped short of discussing whether or not a plea bargain has been placed on the table, and the prosecution would not comment on any pretrial negotiations, either.
“The charges against Eric and Ryan Jensen do not imply that they knew, or even should have known, that the cantaloupes had been contaminated,” said a statement from the brothers, issued by their attorney. “As they were from the first day of this tragedy, the Jensens remain shocked, saddened, and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families.”
The Colorado cantaloupe farm operators reportedly told food safety experts that they had made changes on the Jensen Farm from 2010 to 2011 that were designed to make their produce safer. The farmers also maintained that federal guidelines about food and farm safety processes were “unclear” at the time. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspector said the farmers should have used a chlorine bath in order to kill bacteria on the cantaloupe. The inspector also reportedly noted that the sorter used on the farm was designed for raw potatoes, which would have allowed dirty water to pool in the sorter and recontaminate the freshly washed cantaloupes, The Post reported.
Jeff Dorschner, a US Attorney Office staffer, told local media that the Jenson brothers’ listeria cantaloupe case “stood out” due to the number of patients who were hospitalized and ultimately passed away. The listeria outbreak stemming from the Colorado farm involved patients in a total of 28 states.
“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” said US Attorney John Walsh. “They bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public.”
Amanda Hitt, an attorney with the whistleblower-support group Government Accountability Project called the government’s action “unprecedented” and far from the norm in foodborne illness cases. Hitt also stated that victim-initiated civil lawsuits have not been enough to force food companies to “clean up” their practices.
Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler represents the majority of the listeria outbreak victims. Marler applauded the filing of charges, but added, “We will never have safe food from farm to fork until the entire chain of distribution is held accountable.”
If convicted of the misdemeanor charges levied against them, Ryan Jensen and Eric Jensen could face up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine. The trial is slated to begin on December 2. Many foodborne death and illness cases reportedly go without prosecution. Jensen Farms filed bankruptcy, and their insurance was reportedly put into an account to compensate the victims of the listeria outbreak, The Post said.
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