UPDATE: Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were brought into federal court in Denver on Thursday afternoon in shackles, but they walked out their arraignment as free men, at least until their trial. The two men pleaded not guilty on all counts and were released on a $100,000 unsecured bond, meaning that they don’t have to put up any money unless they violate bail conditions imposed by the court.
Their trial date was set for Dec. 2, and government attorneys said they will need two weeks to present their case.
Eric, 37, and Ryan, 33, are charged with six federal criminal misdemeanor charges related to the 2011 Listeria outbreak blamed on their cantaloupe. It was one of the most deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness in U.S. history, killing at least 33 people and sending 150 to hospitals across the country.
Jensen Farms, owned by the brothers, already went bankrupt because of the numerous civil actions filed after the outbreak. They are accused of aiding and abetting in the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce.
If convicted on all six counts, each brother could potentially face a maximum penalty of six years in federal prison and a $1.5 million fine.
Jennifer Exley, the daughter of Herb Stevens, who died in July from outbreak-related complications, attended the arraignment, saying she wanted to see the Jensen brothers for herself.
DENVER–Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, the brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms, located in Granada, Colorado, surrendered to U.S. Marshals in Denver today in connection with one of the most deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness in U.S. history.
They were taken into custody on federal charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce stemming from the 2011 multi-state Listeria outbreak sourced to cantaloupe grown in southeast Colorado near the Kansas border.
The federal misdemeanor charges were brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation, specifically by U.S. Attorney John Walsh and FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations Special Agent in Charge Patrick Holland.
The defendants are scheduled to make their initial appearance at 2:00 p.m. (MDT) before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty. At that hearing, they will be advised of their rights as well as the charges pending against them.
The government is not seeking pre-trial detention.
According to the six-count Information filed under restriction on Sept. 24, 2013, as well as other court records, Eric and Ryan Jensen allegedly introduced adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce.
Specifically, the cantaloupe bore the poisonous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. The Information further states that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions that rendered it injurious to health.
Each of the six misdemeanor counts carries a penalty of up to one year imprisonment and fine of up to $250,000.
Court documents state that the defendants 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.
In May 2011, the Jensen brothers allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. The new system, built to clean potatoes, was installed and was to include a catch pan to which a chlorine spray could be included to clean the fruit of bacteria. The chlorine spray, however, was never used.
The defendants were aware, according to the charges, that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed. The chlorine spray, if used, would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit.
Investigation by FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) determined that the defendants failed to adequately clean their cantaloupe. Their actions allegedly resulted in at least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes being sent to 28 different states.
CDC tracked the outbreak-associated illness and determined that people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe, resulting in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations. Further, one woman pregnant at the time of her outbreak-related illness had a miscarriage. Ten additional deaths not attributed to Listeriosis occurred among persons who had been infected by eating outbreak-related cantaloupe.
“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “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.”
“U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office. “The filing of criminal charges in this deadly outbreak sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain.”
FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, CDC and the State of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena is prosecuting.© Food Safety News