Government prosecutors on Friday recommended sentences of five years probation for brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, former owners of a cantaloupe farm tied to one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history.
In October, each of the Jensen brothers pleaded guilty to six counts of Introducing an Adulterated Food into Interstate Commerce. That act resulted in a Listeria outbreak that caused more than 30 deaths and 147 illnesses after consumers across the country consumed contaminated cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms.
The maximum sentence for each of the six counts would have been a year in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both. On Wednesday, the Jensens’ defense council submitted a request for sentencing below those maximum guidelines.
In the prosecution’s court sentencing recommendations, the government says that a probationary sentence of five years reflects the seriousness of the offense, promotes respect for the law and provides a just punishment for the offense.
“Without a doubt, any offense that results in 33-40 deaths is a serious offense which must be given careful consideration by a sentencing court,” the prosecutors said. “However, the seriousness of the offense is tempered in this case by the lack of a willful, intentional or knowing state of mind.”
The prosecution went on to describe the case as unusual under historical retrospective, referring to the rarity of criminal charges in foodborne illness outbreaks. Government prosecutors encouraged the court to weigh the devastating results of the Jensens’ actions alongside their efforts to prevent further illnesses by issuing recalls as soon as they learned their fruit was contaminated. The prosecutors also commended the Jensens’ willingness to meet with several victims and their families in an effort to provide closure.
A sentence of five years probation would be sufficient to help deter other growers from ignoring their food safety responsibilities, the prosecutors argued, saying that food producers are already recognizing that flouting safety standards could expose them to criminal liability.
“A sentence to an extensive period of Court supervision will only amplify the message of deterrence to the food industry,” the prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also said that the probationary sentence avoided the disparity between the Jensens’ sentence and that of similar defendants in past cases.
The government’s court sentencing documents lay responsibility on the Jensens for maintaining equipment that would wash cantaloupes with anti-bacterial solutions to sufficiently combat contamination. According to documents, however, the Jensens did not outfit their conveyor system with the chlorine spray that would have reduced microbial loads on the cantaloupes, instead opting to wash the melons with city drinking water on a longer wash cycle.
Despite the lack of an adequate washing solution, food safety auditor Primus Labs gave Jensens Farms an audit score of 96 percent after inspecting their packing facility weeks before the outbreak.
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.
The defense counsel echoed sentiments expressed by the prosecutors that national attention given to the case has instilled a heightened level of awareness about food safety issues among food producers.
“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,” attorneys said. “Many of those voices see this incident, if handled punitively, as a harbinger of the end of small American family farmers.”
The defense team also recommended the judge consider probation, and noted that no defendants with similar records had been convicted for their conduct.
A probationary sentence would also leave the Jensens available to help the victims receive restitution in ongoing litigation around the outbreak. The Jensens previously facilitated a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding to secure $3.8 million in restitution for victims and their families.
The Jensens have also filed a civil lawsuit against Primus and signed over all rights in that litigation to victims.
A federal judge will make a sentence on Jan. 28.© Food Safety News