Two Cantaloupe Farmers Pleaded Guilty to Listeria Outbreak, Sentenced to Probation
Two cantaloupe farmers in Colorado have been sentenced to five years of probation and six months’ home detention on January 28th after pleading guilty last year to causing a listeria outbreak that killed several people.
Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, who ran the now bankrupt Jensen Farms in Denver, faced a federal court on Tuesday. At their plea hearing, the two asked for probation because, they argued, justice had already been served after new food safety and inspection measures were passed in the wake of the 2011 whole cantaloupe listeria outbreak.
The listeria outbreak officially ended in October 2011. The Centers for Disease Control calculated five subtypes of listeria associated with the outbreak, which sickened 147 people, killed 33, and caused one miscarriage across 28 states.
Investigators from the US Food and Drug Administration said that the listeria outbreak likely began in the farm’s packing house, which had dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment.
Months before the listeria outbreak, President Obama signed a new food safety bill into law that shifted regulators’ focus to preventing contamination, rather than simply responding to it.
The Jensen brothers pleaded guilty last year to counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They could have faced up to 6 years in federal prison and $1.5 million in fines, but Judge Michael E. Hegarty said it was more important for the brothers to pay restitution, and probation would allow them to do that and continue to support their families.
A judge in the case estimated overall damages at $50 million. The brothers have already filed bankruptcy and paid $4 million in restitutions.
Listeria can cause a potentially fatal infection in those with compromised immune systems such as older adults, pregnant women, and young children. According to the CDC, there were 1,651 cases of listeriosis nationally between 2009 and 2011 – the infection was fatal in 21% of the reported cases.
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