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Deadly Listeria Outbreak Focus of Federal Criminal Probe

The U.S. Attorney for Colorado is close to finishing a federal criminal investigation into the deadly 2011 Listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, the nonprofit Denver-based I-News Network reports.

James Pena, who heads the U.S. District Attorney’s health care fraud task force, called the Listeria outbreak “an important public health issue,” according to I-News, which is associated with most major Colorado news outlets.

Neither Pena nor anyone else speaking for John Walsh, the U.S. District Attorney for Colorado, will confirm or deny the existence of the investigation. I-News says it is confident the criminal probe is underway based on multiple sources.

The victims and their families clearly want to see criminal charges filed. A 92-year-old man from Kansas City, Paul Schwarz, died after weeks of suffering from listeriosis contracted after eating Jensen Farms’ cantaloupes.

“I would love to see the Jensen brothers in handcuffs being marched off to jail,” his son and namesake, Paul Schwarz, told Food Safety News “Three years isn’t enough for the misery that their sloppy processing laid on the families of the dead and others that were sickened.”

One who says a probe is underway, as first reported by Bloomberg News, is nationally known food safety attorney Bill Marler, who represents most of the victims of the Listeria outbreak and their families.

The Seattle-based attorney, who is also publisher of Food Safety News, said his law offices shared its case files with federal investigators three weeks ago and was led to understand that they were needed was for an ongoing investigation.

It was last year, after Labor Day, that Colorado health officials began receiving an unusual number of reported cases of Listeria, which was fairly quickly associated with “Rocky Ford” cantaloupe grown in the state along the Arkansas River.

A short time later, the source was narrowed down to only cantaloupes grown by Jensen Farms, owned by brothers Ryan and Eric Jensen, in southeast Colorado near the Kansas border.

But it was too late to stop a multistate outbreak of deadly Listeria that eventually reached 28 states, sickening at least 147 and killing 37, making it the most deadly foodborne outbreak in a century with a 25 percent fatality rate.

Edinburg, TX-based Frontera Produce distributed the contaminated cantaloupes for the grower.

An investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Colorado found that cantaloupes and equipment in the Jensen packing shed were contaminated.

The deadly outbreak has resulted in plenty of civil actions. Most of the victims or their survivors sued Jensen Farms. The company filed for bankruptcy on May 25, 2012.

One auditor Jensen had hired, Texas-based Bio Food Safety, joined Jensen Farms in bankruptcy on July 27. Jensen, Bio Food, and Pepper Equipment have agreed to put up $4.5 million in the “settlement pool” for victims.

Victims have until Sept. 14 to submit claims to the bankruptcy court. If the court’s pool of funds proves insufficient, the litigation will likely move on to the retailers who sold the contaminated cantaloupes.

Earlier this year, Eric Jensen was fined $4,250 after being charged with providing substandard housing to migrant workers brought by the U.S. Department of Labor over his ownership of the Gateway Motel in Holly.

© Food Safety News