DENVER - The two brothers who own Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., have filed motions stating they've reached plea agreements, indicating they will plead guilty in a federal criminal case stemming from 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, entered separate change of plea motions in Denver federal court on Tuesday.
The brothers entered not guilty pleas after they were arrested last month in Denver and charged by federal prosecutors with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and aiding and abetting. The charges resulted from an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and state and federal health officials.
In court papers, the Jensen brothers informed the court of their plea agreements with the government and request a change of plea hearing on Oct. 22. The Jensens' attorneys write that their clients will file written plea agreements before the hearing.
If convicted on all six counts, each brother could have potentially faced a maximum penalty of six years in federal prison and a $1.5 million fine.
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.
The Jensens were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if it wasn't 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.