DENVER - Two brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., were arrested in Denver Thursday on federal criminal charges in the 2011 Listeria-tainted cantaloupe outbreak that killed 33 people and hospitalized 147 others across the United States.
Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, were charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and aiding and abetting. The charges are the result of an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state and federal health officials.
The Jensen brothers were led in Denver federal court with their hands and feet shackled during a 2 p.m. hearing where they were advised of the charges against them. Each man's attorney entered a not guilty plea on their behalf.
A judge released the two men on a $100,000 unsecured bond, which means the Jensens didn't have to put up any money -- unless they violate their bond. The brothers' trial is tentatively scheduled to begin on Dec. 2
If convicted on all six counts, each brother could potentially face a maximum penalty of six years in federal prison and a $1.5 million fine.
According to the information released Thursday, 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 prosecutions 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 was to include a catch pan with a chlorine spray that cleaned the fruit of bacteria.
The chlorine spray was never used, court records state.
The Jensens were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if it wasn't not sufficiently washed, court records state. If the chlorine spray had been used, it would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit, prosecutors say.
Investigation by the FDA and the Center for Disease Control determined that the brothers failed to adequately clean their cantaloupe, prosecutors say.
Their actions allegedly resulted in at least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes being sent to 28 different states, court records state. The CDC tracked the outbreak-associated illness and determined that people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe, resulting in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations. In addition, one woman who was pregnant at the time of her outbreak-related illness suffered a miscarriage. Ten additional deaths not attributed to Listeriosis occurred among persons 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 Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations in Kansas City. "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, an attorney for victims and their families, issued a statement lauding the U.S. Attorney Office's for charging the Jensen Farms owners. But Marler said prosecutors should also consider charges against major retailers who sold the cantaloupe and a commercial farm auditing firm.
"I would urge the U.S. Attorney to consider leveling criminal charges against the retailers, such as Walmart and Kroger, as well. The U.S. Attorney should also consider the same against the auditor, Primus," Marler said.
"These retailers set the specifications for the 'fresh fruits' and ignored them," said Marler, who represents 25 family members of people who died from Listeria and 21 who were sickened and survived. "These retailers required audits that they knew full well would generate a glowing inspection, all the while ignoring what was there to be seen. These retailers then used their market power to squeeze the supply chain of any profit that could have been invested in food safety."
Among those in court, Jennifer Exley, whose father Herb Stevens passed away in July from listeria related complications. She says she wanted to see the Jensen brothers for herself. The memory of her father is a constant presence in her life.
"I miss my dad a lot. He was a really good dad. And was very supportive to me and all my kids and my sisters and their kids. I go and visit his grave site at Fort Logan routinely. But I know he's in a better place with God,” said Exley. "I hope that being charged with some negligence, crimes by the feds, makes farmers wake up. That they are responsible for our food source in the United States."
One attorney representing the victim’s families describes the move by the prosecutors as “unprecedented.”
"This is the first time I've seen like this brought by the feds," said attorney Bill Marler.