Posted October 14, 2013
Federal prosecutors have filed criminal charges against Eric Jensen and Ryan Jensen, the two brothers who owned and operated a Colorado farm tied to the 2011 Listeria cantaloupe outbreak that killed 33 and sickened 147, according to press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, available here.
The Information charges the brothers with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, and aiding and abetting. If convicted, each faces up to one year in federal prison, and a fine of up to $250,000 per charge.
The Jensens set up and maintained a processing center where cantaloupes were taken from the field and transferred to a conveyor system for cleaning, cooling, and packaging. The equipment should have washed the fruit with sufficient antibacterial solution. In May of 2011, the Jensens allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. A system built to clean potatoes was installed, and was to include a pan in which a chlorine spray would clean bacteria from the fruit. The chlorine spray, however, was never used and the Jensens knew that the cantaloupe could be contaminated with bacteria if not properly washed.
Investigationsby the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) determined that the Jensens failed to adequately clean their cantaloupe, resulting in at least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria being sent to 28 different states.
U.S. Attorney John Walsh said, “As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe.”
The food industry has been shaken by the recent criminal charges, according to a Politico article available here. Jim Prevor, a “key voice in the produce industry,” argued on his blog, The Perishable Pundit, that the deadly outbreak is a tragedy, not a crime.” Prevor said, “Margins are tight in this business and it is a lot of work…Participants already run the risk of suffering crop failures; now they also run the risk of jail. Many will decide this is not where to put their money or their time.”
Bill Marler, attorney for 25 family members of people who died from Listeria and 21 sickened who survived, urged prosecutors to consider charges against the retailers, such as Walmart and Kroger, and the auditor, Primus, which inspected the facility, in a statement available here. Marler said, “These retailers set the specifications for the ‘fresh fruits’ and ignored them. These retailers required audits that they knew full well would generate a glowing inspection, all the while ignoring what was there to be seen.”
For more information on legal issues involving food safety, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website, here.