Farmers Guilty In Listeria Outbreak, Sentenced To Probation

Jennifer Deutschmann

In 2011, a listeria outbreak sickened 147 people in 28 states. A total of 33 people died as a result of the devastating illness. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in cooperation with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eventually determined the bacteria was linked to cantaloupes sold by Jensen Farms.

The listeria outbreak was one of the deadliest in US history. Following an extensive investigation, federal health officials determined it could have been prevented. Although the family business started in the early 1900s, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were running the farm when the outbreak occurred.

An inspection of the farm and plant revealed numerous health code violations. A majority of the violations were caused by procedural changes instituted by the brothers when they inherited the farm. Although the specific source of the contamination was not determined, the conditions inside the plant likely contributed to spreading the bacteria.

Equipment used to process the melons was found to contain obvious "dirt and product buildup." Health industry standards require food processing plants to use equipment that is easy to clean and disinfect. However, machinery and surfaces inside the Jensen Farms plant "appeared to be uncleanable."

Inspectors also found pipes covered in condensation, which was dripping onto the floor. As the floor contained numerous cracks and holes, the condensation pooled in areas that were impossible to keep clean.

Federal investigators concluded Eric and Ryan Jensen were responsible for the listeria outbreak, which originated in their plant. The brothers were charged with "introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce." The maximum penalty for the federal charge is six years in prison and fines totaling $1.5 million.

As reported by CNN, prosecutors said the brothers were cooperative throughout the investigation. Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh recommended a sentence of probation for both men, noting that "no sentence of incarceration, restitution or financial penalty can undo the tragic damage."

The brothers eventually plead guilty to several misdemeanor charges. Prior to their sentencing, they took turns apologizing for their mismanagement of the plant. Ryan offered his "most sincere apologies and deepest regrets." He said he hopes the incident will raise awareness about food production safety.

Eric echoed his brother's wish that the "huge tragedy" will raise awareness. He also said he and his brother are "very, very sorry."

The brothers were sentenced to five years probation and six months on house arrest. Each brother was also ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution.

U.S. Attorney John Walsh was satisfied with the judge's decision. He said the listeria outbreak led to changes in the way "fruit is processed and transported across the country."

[Image via Wikimedia]