Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen each face up to one year in prison and a fine of $250,000 per charge if convicted of six misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and aiding and abetting.
The brothers, ages 37 and 33 respectively, were the owners and operators of the now-defunct Jensen Farms, a cantaloupe farm directly connected to an outbreak of Listeria that killed 33 people and sickened another 147 people in the United States in 2011.
According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's office, the Jensens were taken into custody Sept. 26 by U.S. marshals. The federal charges were filed by the U.S. Attorney's office in Denver in conjunction with the Food & Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigation, U.S. Attorney John Walsh and Food & Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations.
The defendants were scheduled for a court appearance that afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty.
"At that hearing they were to be advised of their rights as well as the charges pending against them," the statement said.
Documents presented to the court stated "the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health."
Information presented indicated that the brothers changed their cantaloupe-cleaning system in May 2011.
"The new system, built to clean potatoes, was installed, and was to include a catch pan to which a chlorine spray could be included to clean the fruit of bacteria," according to the documents. "The chlorine spray, however, was never used. The defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed. The chlorine spray, if used, would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit."
According to the documents, a total of six cantaloupe shipments containing Listeria were sent to 28 states.
"As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe," said Walsh, the U.S. Attorney. "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 & Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law."
"U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity," said Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office. "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."
Bill Marler, known nationally as a food-safety advocate and food-poisoning attorney, has filed lawsuits on behalf of affected people.
"On behalf of my 46 clients, 25 family members of people who died from Listeria and 21 sickened who survived, I am pleased that the U.S. Attorney's office recognizes that some form of criminal sanctions were appropriate against Jensen Farms for sickening at least 147 people and killing over 33 in 2011 from tainted cantaloupe grown in Colorado," the Seattle-based Marler said on his website.
Jensen Farms, located in Granada, CO, some 90 miles from Rocky Ford, CO, used the widely recognized "Rocky Ford" name to promote its fruit. Cantaloupe growers in Rocky Ford, who have an impeccable 125-year history of growing the melons without a problem, saw sales plummet following the outbreak.
To combat the negative effects of the Jensen Farms case, Rocky Ford growers subsequently patented the "Rocky Ford" name, centralized packing operations and hired a full-time food-safety manager.
A trial date for the Jensen brothers has been set for Dec. 7.