DENVERFederal authorities have brought criminal charges against two brothers who operated a now bankrupt Colorado cantaloupe farm that was implicated in the 2011 Listeria outbreak that led to 33 deaths.
Eric Jensen, 37, and his 33-year-old brother Ryan have been taken into custody after turning themselves in to U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver announced. The brothers have been charged with six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The charges were announced roughly two years after consumers began falling ill from cantaloupes that were traced back to Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo. Government officials later confirmed samples of whole cantaloupes and environmental samples at Jensen Farms' packing facility tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterium that causes the fatal infection listeriosis.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found the outbreak was potentially caused by a number of factors within Jensen Farms' control. For instance, prosecutors said Jensen Farms failed to use a chlorine spray that would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the cantaloupes.
Last year, Jensen Farms filed for bankruptcy, and it recently settled civil claims filed against it by victims and their families. Several other companies in the food-supply chain have been sued as well.
"As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe," U.S. 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, as these charges demonstrate, this office and the Food and Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law."
The Jensens were expected to hear the charges against them and be read their rights in an initial appearance this afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty. Jaime Pena, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Denver, is prosecuting the case.
Christopher Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute with the Consumer Federation of America, expressed his belief that such criminal prosecutions are fairly uncommon.
"But I do think prosecutions like these can act as a deterrent to other companies because they show that these types of situations are taken very seriously by federal authorities," he told Food Product Design.
For a timeline of events, view the 2011 Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak: A Slide Show."