Cantaloupe Farmers Criminally Charged In Connection With 2011 Deadly Listeria Outbreak
September 27, 2013

Cantaloupe Farmers Criminally Charged In Connection With 2011 Deadly Listeria Outbreak

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

A 2011 deadly outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes has resulted in criminal charges brought against two Colorado brothers who own the farm where the illness stemmed from. The outbreak caused the deaths of at least 33 people and sickened more than 140 across 28 states.

Eric and Ryan Jensen, owners of Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, turned themselves in on Thursday and appeared in court on charges of distributing listeria-tainted cantaloupes around the country, the District of Colorado US Attorney’s office said.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the two brothers pleaded not guilty to the charges and were subsequently released on a $100,000 bond. Trial is set to begin on December 2. If convicted, the brothers each face up to a year in federal prison and fines of up to $250,000 for six counts of adulteration of food and aiding and abetting.

The outbreak, which occurred two years ago this month, was pinpointed to Jensen Farms after a trackback investigation followed the trail of tainted cantaloupes from the home, to grocery stores and eventually back to the Jensen Farms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially confirmed that the contaminated melons directly caused the deaths of 33 people, including one miscarriage. Since then, 10 others who had been infected with a listeriosis subtype had also died. It is not clear if these cases were directly tied to Jensen Farms' cantaloupe or not.

The Jensen Farm listeria outbreak was deemed the nation’s worst in at least a quarter century, according to federal investigators. Investigations by the CDC and the FDA found that Jensen Farms had purchased used processing equipment that was corroded, making it difficult to keep clean. They said pools of water located near packing equipment may have helped the bacteria spread, contaminating the fruit easily.

"U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity," Patrick J. Holland of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, which helped bring the case, told WSJ. "The filing of criminal charges in this deadly outbreak sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food-supply chain."

Prosecutors have argued that both brothers were responsible for introducing listeria, a poisonous bacterium, into interstate commerce because the cantaloupes were prepared, packed and stored in substandard conditions.

The Jensens’ attorney said the charges brought against the brothers did not suggest they knew about any contamination. The brothers declined to comment on the charges, but a statement said they “remained shocked, saddened and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families.”

A lawyer representing 25 family members of those who died in the 2011 outbreak, along with 20 others who had also been sickened, said the charges were unprecedented, given that there is no evidence that the brothers knowingly sold contaminated cantaloupes.

"It underscores the fact that these bugs are deadly, and farmers, manufacturers and retailers need to pay a heck of a lot more attention to how production is done," he said.

Many cases of foodborne illness go without prosecution of growers or distributors, according to US Attorney spokesman Jeff Dorschner. He said that this case stands out because of “the magnitude of the number of people who were hospitalized and who died, and it involved 28 of the 50 states."

Victims, as well as food-safety experts were both surprised and satisfied with the charges that had been brought against the Jensens. They said that highlighting the bad practices discovered at the cantaloupe farm would send other food producers, packers and distributors a message about food safety.

Jennifer Exley, whose father died after becoming sick from consuming the contaminated cantaloupe, said she wanted to see the brothers in person in court.

"I wanted to humanize this for me," Exley told the Denver Post outside the federal courthouse.  "I'm glad they were charged. I don't think they did anything on purpose, but I think they had very sloppy farming practices."

While most foodborne illness cases go to civil rather than criminal court, Amanda Hitt, an attorney with the whistleblower-supporting group Government Accountability Project, said such cases are not enough to persuade food companies to clean up their act. Bringing criminal charges against the Jensens “is an unprecedented thing; it’s not the norm,” she said.

Bill Marler, a food safety attorney from Seattle, who represents a large portion of the listeria outbreak victims, said going after the Jensens is not enough. While he praised the news, he feels prosecutors should also go after grocery stores and other outlets that buy and sell such products.

"We will never have safe food from 'farm to fork' until the entire chain of distribution is held accountable for the food that they make a profit from," Marler said in a statement to the Denver Post.

“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” US Attorney John Walsh said in a statement. “They bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public. Where they fail to live up to that responsibility, and as these charges demonstrate, this office and the Food and Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law.”

The FDA is also currently investigating another outbreak that arose earlier this summer.

An outbreak of cyclosporiasis was first reported in July in more than a dozen states. While outbreaks in two states were linked to contaminated salad mix distributed by Taylor Farms de Mexico, a food processing facility south of the border, it is unlikely that criminal charges will be brought against that firm as the outbreak is not considered deadly.

The FDA and CDC continue to investigate cases in 25 states, with the largest outbreak occurring in Texas, where more than 275 people have been sickened.