The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado yesterday reported that two owner-operators of a produce business that sold cantaloupe linked to a 2011 multistate outbreak of listeriosis that resulted in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations have been charged with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
Eric and Ryan Jensen, brothers who owned and operated Granada, CO-based Jensen Farms, presented themselves to U.S. Marshals in Denver and were taken into custody on federal charges. The charges were brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations.
According to the six-count Information filed under restriction on September 24, 2013, as well as other court records, the Jensens allegedly introduced into interstate commerce several shipments of cantaloupe adulterated with the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes. The Information further states that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed, and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health.
Court documents state that the defendants 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 an antibacterial solution that would clean the fruit of bacteria.
In May of 2011, the Jensen brothers allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. The newly installed system, built to clean potatoes, was supposed to include a catch pan to which a chlorine spray could be attached to reduce the risk of microbial contamination. However, court documents state, defendants were aware that the chlorine spray was never used and that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria.
Investigation by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that the defendants failed to adequately clean their cantaloupes. Their actions allegedly 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 all 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe, resulting in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations. Further, one woman who was pregnant at the time of her outbreak-related illness had a miscarriage. Ten additiodnal deaths not attributed to listeriosis occurred among people who had been infected by eating outbreak-related cantaloupe.
“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “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.”
“U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said Patrick J. Holland, special agent in charge of the Kansas City Field Office of FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations. “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 have been charged with six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. If convicted, each faces not more than one year in federal prison, and a fine of up to $250,000 per charge.
This case was investigated by the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, the Centers for Disease Control and the State of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The defendants are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena.