DENVER - Two Colorado farmers whose cantaloupes were tainted with listeria have filed a lawsuit blaming a food-safety auditor that didn't pick up safety problems and gave the farm a "superior" rating just a month before the nation's deadliest case of foodborne illness in a quarter century.
Eric and Ryan Jensen owned Jensen Farms, which sold melons connected to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The Jensens were charged last month with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and are expected to plead guilty Oct. 22 under a deal with federal prosecutors.
The charges resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state and federal health officials.
The Jensens filed a lawsuit this week against PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, Calif., food safety auditor that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011. The PrimusLabs auditor didn't note that the Jensens' processing system posed a risk of contamination.
A call to PrimusLabs wasn't immediately returned.
According to a criminal complaint, Eric and Ryan Jensen are accused of introducing into interstate commerce cantaloupe contaminated with poisonous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. Court papers say the cantaloupe was "prepared, packed and held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health."
Court records state that the Jensen brothers 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 sufficient anti-bacterial solutions so that the fruit was cleaned of bacteria in the process.
But prosecutors say that in May of 2011, the brothers allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. They installed a new system, built to clean potatoes, and it was supposed to include a catch pan with a chlorine spray that cleaned the fruit of bacteria.
The chlorine spray was never used, court records state.