Federal prosecutors have filed charges against the two brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms for allegedly introducing adulterated cantaloupe bearing a poisonous bacterium into interstate commerce and causing the deadly 2011 listeria outbreak. Eric Jensen and Ryan Jensen were taken into custody on the federal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
It was alleged that the Jensens changed their Colorado-based farm’s cantaloupe cleaning system in May 2011, and that the cantaloupes weren’t treated with a chlorine spray that kills bacteria. It was alleged further that cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacterium were then sold to consumers. U.S. Attorney John Walsh said the case serves as a tragic reminder that food processors play a critical role in ensuring that food is safe. In that regard, Walsh stated:
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 listeria outbreak was believed to be the deadliest food-borne bacterial outbreak in more than 25 years. It was reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that 147 people across 28 states were made sick and 35 died. The cause was traced back to cantaloupes grown by the now-bankrupt Jensen Farms. A number of personal injury and wrongful death claims were filed against the grower, its food safety auditor The Primus Group Inc., and distributor Frontera Produce Ltd., as well as several retailers and other related companies.
The Jensen brothers had 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 worked in such a way that the cantaloupe would be washed with sufficient anti-bacterial solutions so that the fruit was cleaned of bacteria in the process, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But, in May 2011, the brothers installed a new cleaning system that was built to clean potatoes. The new system was to include a catch pan to which a chlorine spray could be included to remove bacteria from the fruit. But it appears that the spray was never used. The government lawyers say that the defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed.
The FDA and CDC determined that the defendants failed to adequately clean their cantaloupe and that their actions resulted in at least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes being sent to 28 different states. The CDC tracked the outbreak-associated illness and determined that people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe, resulting in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations. Patrick J. Holland, Special Agent in Charge of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office, said in a statement:
U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity. 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.
Both defendants were charged with six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. If convicted, each faces up to one year in federal prison and a fine per charge of up to $250,000.
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