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Cantaloupe Farmers Ask for Probation in Criminal Case

Two Colorado farmers who pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing contaminated cantaloupe to interstate commerce in one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history have asked a federal judge for probation sentences.

Eric and Ryan Jensen, owners of Jensen Farms, pleaded guilty in October to selling cantaloupes tainted with Listeria monocytogenes, which led to the deaths of more than 30 people and sickened at least 147 in 2011.

The maximum sentence for each of the six counts would be a year in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler said that probation would be a sufficient sentence for the Jensens, as the criminal charges have already sent a message to food growers that deadly foodborne illness outbreaks are taken seriously by government prosecutors. (Marler’s law firm, Marler Clark, which represents 24 families of victims who died, underwrites Food Safety News.)

Attorneys for the Jensens said that jail time in this case would be excessive and would avoid a large disparity compared to defendants found guilty of similar conduct. The case has already caught the attention of the food industry, they said.

“Any desired respect for the law has been accomplished,” the defense said. “We have reached a point of diminishing returns on the issue.”

In fact, harsh or punitive sentences for the Jensens would create an attitude of disrespect for the law, the defense argued.

“There are many voices in the national dialogue which question the reasonableness of a law which would punish well-meaning small farmers for an event which was truly an accident,” the attorneys said. “Many of those voices see this incident, if handled punitively, as a harbinger of the end of small American family farmers.”

A probationary sentence would also leave the Jensens available to help the victims receive restitution in ongoing litigation related to the outbreak. The Jensens previously facilitated a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding to secure $3.8 million in restitution for victims and their families. Marler and other attorneys are suing retailers and auditors for around $50 million in additional damages.

The Jensens have in turn filed a civil lawsuit against food safety auditor Primus Labs, which gave them a high score on a food safety audit just weeks before the outbreak. The brothers signed over all rights in that litigation to victims.

Despite the Jensens’ packing facility lacking adequate washing solution, Primus Labs gave Jensens Farms an audit score of 96 percent on inspection.

In their request to reduce the sentence below the maximum guidelines, the Jensens’ defense team noted that the Primus audit did not advise the Jensens about the potential hazards or risk of contamination associated with their equipment. The brothers believed that the superior rating from Primus ensured that their products were safe for consumption, the defense said.

Defense documents describe the Jensens as respected and beloved members of their community and include anecdotes from community members who describe them as hard-working family men who took pride in their business.

© Food Safety News
  • ethanspapa

    It compares to food handlers going to the bathroom and eliminating excrement from their own bodies and walking out without washing hands. Or a surgeon not scrubbing before surgery.
    This isn’t wall street fellas where you can break the bank, walk away without doing a day in jail and getting a bonus for gross incompetence.
    Every time you get the government involved it always backfires and becomes a nightmare. Just count the lobbyists that traverse the halls of congress with pockets full of goodies.
    Frustrated in Franklin.

  • Oginikwe

    When you hire someone to inspect your premises, you expect them to deliver.
    “Bio-Food Safety, a subcontractor of Primus Group Inc., gave Jensen Farms facilities a
    ‘superior’ inspection rating six days before the outbreak started.” They received a 96/100.

    Then there was the problem with the FDA not “naming names” which added to the misery: “FDA
    reported that the contaminated cantaloupes had come from Jensen Farms in
    Colorado, but did not name any of the retail stores where the fruit was sold,
    despite the fact that potentially contaminated cantaloupes were likely still on
    store shelves.” (http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/11/how-much-outbreak-info-should-government-share-with-consumers/)

    These guys thought they were doing everything right and depended upon the system to make sure they were doing everything right. What possible good can come from their going to jail? It’s an indictment of the system and these corporations and their fail to deliver coupled with the toothlessnesss of the FDA.

    Now, that peanut guy–Parnell who willfully ignored warning signs for years–set his butt in prison and feed him peanut butter every day so he can wonder if the head of that company is as tone deaf as he is. He will think of that only, of course, if his ADHD doesn’t interfere with his ability to actually remember and focus on the choices he made. lol.