Last month, prosecutors charged two brothers over a Listeria cantaloupe outbreak that killed 33 people in one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in United States history.
The brothers—former owners of Jensen Farms in Colorado—pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. They were each charged with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce associated with shipping contaminated melons to produce retailers, according to Reuters. Prosecutors said that, in May 2011, the Jensens began washing cantaloupes with potato cleaning devices, but did not use the chlorine spray feature meant to destroy deadly bacteria.
The brothers pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Denver and face sentences of up to six years in federal prison and fines of up to $1.5 million, according to Reuters. At first, the two pleaded not guilty to the charges. “The defendants have now admitted that they failed to protect the public from deadly bacteria on their cantaloupe, in violation of the law and critical FDA requirements,” United States attorney for Denver, John F. Walsh, said in a statement.
As we’ve written, this Listeria outbreak originated with Jensen Farms having ignored U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines and involved four different Listeria monocytogenes strains. A Congressional investigation revealed that the massive outbreak might have been avoided had Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado, followed U.S. guidelines that say fruit should be washed in chlorinated water. Jensen Farms also did not have new, FDA-recommended processing equipment, according to the House Energy and Commerce Committee report.
In all, 147 people from 28 states were hospitalized, one woman suffered a miscarriage and another 33 people died in connection to the deadly outbreak, according to Reuters.
In 2012, the Jensens filed for bankruptcy and ceased farming when lawsuits began to be filed; their sentencing is scheduled for January.
One such lawsuit was filed by the family of an 89-year-old Texas woman who alleges her death was the result of consuming Listeria-tainted Jensen Cantaloupe. Frontera Produce Ltd. was also named in that lawsuit.
We previously explained that dirty equipment and unsanitary conditions and practices have been blamed for contaminating whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. The FDA 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.”