Jensen Farms owners, Eric and Ryan Jensen, plead guilty in deadly cantaloupe case

Atty: Pleaded because it happened on their watch

DENVER - Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal criminal charges tied to a deadly listeria outbreak, but their attorneys insist there was no intent to harm anyone.

Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce in connection with the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed at least 33 people.

"I'm glad they finally placed some blame on themselves," said Jennifer Exley, whose father was sickened and later died after eating tainted cantaloupe.

"(The guilty pleas) won't bring my father back," Exley said, "but at least they’re taking some responsibility for it now."

Exley says her father, Herb Stevens, purchased some pre-cut cantaloupe from King Soopers in 2011. She says he got sick and was never the same after that.

"My dad was always a fighter," she said. "He was born a preemie in 1927 and only weighed 6 pounds when he was a year old. So, he's been fighting all his life, and it took the listeria to finally claim him at the age of 87."

Court documents state that each of the six counts against the Jensen brothers are for specific shipments:

- July 29:  to Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming

- Aug. 1:  to Texas

- Aug. 3:  to Kansas

- Aug. 11:  to Oklahoma

- Aug. 15:  to Louisiana

- Aug. 26:  to New York

The Jensens declined comment after the plea hearing, but one of their attorneys told 7NEWS that the brothers "manned up and stepped up because this happened on their watch."

"I'm proud of them for that," defense attorney Forest Lewis added.

Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses. When the charges were filed, the FDA said the rare move was intended to send a message to food producers.

In a written statement, Lewis and Richard Banta, the other defense attorney, said the guilty plea was another step in bringing closure.

"The plea agreements reflect the continuing cooperation by Eric and Ryan Jensen with federal authorities since the investigation began in September 2011," a statement from the Jensens' attorneys said. "The charges to which Ryan and Eric entered guilty pleas to do not imply any intentional wrongdoing or knowledge that the cantaloupes were contaminated."

According to a criminal complaint, Eric and Ryan Jensen were 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 allege that in May of 2011, the brothers changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. They installed a new system, originally 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.

The Jensens have filed a lawsuit against a food-safety auditor that didn't pick up safety problems and gave the farm a "superior" rating just a month before the outbreak.

The Jensens are suing 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.

The brothers will be sentenced in January. They face up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.

When asked if she thought the sentence range was enough, Exley replied, "I'll leave that up to the court. I don’t know what (the Jensens) are putting themselves through. Are they really sorry for what they've done? I don’t know. I've never talked to them."

Exley told 7NEWS that she hasn't eaten cantaloupe since the summer of 2011 "and probably won’t for a long, long time."

She said she occasionally checks cantaloupe in the supermarket to see where it's from, but has no intention of purchasing any.

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