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Colorado farmers charged in deadly contaminated cantaloupe outbreak

September 26, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • Eric Jensen, shown here in 2011, and brother Ryan face federal charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
Eric Jensen, shown here in 2011, and brother Ryan face federal charges of… (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)

A pair of Colorado brothers have been arrested on charges connected to a  deadly outbreak of contaminated cantaloupes, the 2011 listeria epidemic that killed 33 people, federal officials said Thursday.

Eric and Ryan Jensen were arrested on misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Colorado. The brothers, who owned and operated Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., surrendered to U.S. marshals Thursday, prosecutors said.

In a six-count information filing, Eric, 37, and Ryan, 33, were charged with introducing fruit contaminated with listeria into interstate commerce. The Jensens are accused of improperly cleaning, packing and storing the fruit, according to the charges.

If convicted, each defendant faces up to a year in prison and a fine of $250,000 on each count.

The 2011 listeria outbreak was the nation’s worst in at least 25 years, according to federal investigators. At its height, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people had been sickened in 28 states.

According to a later investigation by the CDC and the federal Food and Drug Administration, Jensen Farms had bought used processing equipment that was corroded, thus hard to keep clean. Pools of water could have helped spread the bacteria. The water was located near the packing equipment and could have contaminated the fruit, according to the FDA.

In addition to the 33 deaths directly linked to listeria, investigators said 147 people were hospitalized. “Ten additional deaths not attributed to listeriosis occurred among persons who had been infected by eating outbreak-related cantaloupe,” prosecutors said.

“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” U.S. Atty. John Walsh said in a statement. “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.”

The farm, which filed for bankruptcy, was located in southeastern Colorado. A number of civil suits were filed after the federal investigations.

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