Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Could Spawn Criminal Charges

The Jensen Farms cantaloupe Listeria outbreak could lead to criminal charges, with the farm’s owners potentially facing criminal prosecution for the deadly outbreak.

The Jensen cantaloupe Listeria outbreak is close to becoming record-breaking and involves four Listeria monocytogenes strains, claiming 29 lives and sickening 139 people in 28 states, according to health officials. The Denver Post reports that federal prosecutors are looking for evidence of willful negligence so that the cases can be elevated to felony status charges worthy of pursuing, say legal analysts.

To prove a felony, knowledge of danger must be proven. Agricultural experts who have talked with the Jensen family say the family thought changes it made in 2011 would ensure the melons would be safer. The Jensens have not commented.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and officials with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration have not said if a criminal probe is in place against Jensen Farms, said The Denver Post. In a warning letter the FDA sent to Jensen Farms last month, it criticized the farm following the outbreak of Listeria and indicated that criminal prosecution was possible. It remains unclear if Jensen Farms officials will be mandated to testify in front of a Congressional panel on the matter; however, members of the Energy and Commerce sub-committee previously requested a hearing.

Dirty equipment and unsanitary conditions and practices have been blamed for contaminating whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Colorado’s Jensen Farms. Although the FDA could not identify the outbreak’s exact cause, it cited violations in sanitary conditions, writing that, “These positive swabs were taken from different locations throughout the washing and packing areas in your facility, all of which were either food contact surfaces or areas adjacent to food contact surfaces…. This significant percentage of swabs that tested positive for outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes demonstrates widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility.”

The farm’s owners maintain that the packing facility, considered the point of origin, is cleaned routinely; they also claim they do not understand how the pathogen ended up on its equipment. The outbreak has led to a recall of over 300,000 cases of Jensen whole Rocky Ford cantaloupes.

According to the FDA and private auditors, that the Jensens made significant changes to how they handled post-harvesting activities, purchasing a used potato-sorting machine not meant for cantaloupe use. The machine enabled water to pool, helping to spread the Listeria pathogen, the FDA said, according to The Denver Post. The Jensens also stopped using “antibacterial agents in a new one-pass, clean-water washing system,” believing this new system would improve packing activities, said The Denver Post, which noted that FDA rules are ambiguous when it comes to safely cleaning, cooling, and packing produce.

As we’ve noted, a pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage as a result of Listeria poisoning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Four illnesses in this outbreak involved pregnant women, the most susceptible to the Listeria monocytogenes pathogen. Three other women fell ill while pregnant and one newborn was diagnosed with listeriosis, the infection caused by the Listeria pathogen. Meanwhile, the family of an 89-year- Texas woman filed a negligence lawsuit against Jensen Farms, alleging that her death was the result of consuming Listeria-tainted Jensen Cantaloupe. Frontera Produce Ltd. was also named in the lawsuit.

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