Farmers Eric and Ryan Jensen face charges over 33 deaths from tainted cantaloupe
In a blog post written several months after a 2011 listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe grown at Colorado's Jensen Farms caused 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations, attorney Bill Marler, who represents 46 families in the case, wrote that criminal indictments after such incidents are as "rare as hen's teeth." Yet U.S. Attorney John Walsh has now brought charges against Jensen Farms operators Eric and Ryan Jensen. Marler's reaction? He thinks grocery chains also should be hauled into court. Photos, video, a timeline and more below.
Photos, video and more below.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet made public the six-count information it filed this week against the Jensen brothers. But according to a news release, the pair "allegedly introduced adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce. Specifically, the cantaloupe bore a poisonous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. The Information further states that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health."
This last statement is key. The Centers for Disease Control long ago linked the fruit to Jensen Farms, via an impressive exhibition of scientific detective work sketched out in a detailed timeline seen in both text and graphic form below.
A cantaloupe field at Jensen Farms.
The results were undeniably tragic. Beyond the aforementioned 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations, the U.S. Attorneys Office points out that a pregnant woman who ate some of the cantaloupe subsequently suffered a miscarriage and ten other people who had been infected also died, albeit not directly from Listeriosis. Moreover, the impact was sweeping: The six shipments of cantaloupe found to have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes were sent to 28 different states.
The trick for prosecutors is establishing that the contamination came as a result of criminal neglect -- and here's how they plan to do it. The court documents argue that the farm's processing center, including a conveyor system for cleaning, cooling and packaging the cantaloupe, 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."
But in May 2011, the brothers allegedly switched to a new cleaning system that was built to clean potatoes. The device included a catch pan "to which a chlorine spray could be included to clean the fruit of bacteria," but prosecutors say it was never used. They also argue that "the defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed." This action, they believe, constituted criminal conduct and justified charges of introducing "adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce."
In a statement affixed to his website, attorney Marler, based in Seattle, said that "on behalf of my 46 clients, 25 family members of people who died from Listeria and 21 sickened who survived, I am pleased that the U.S. Attorney's Office recognizes that some form of criminal sanctions were appropriate against Jensen Farms for sickening at least 147 people and killing over 33 in 2011 from tainted cantaloupe grown in Colorado."
However, he goes on, "I would urge the U.S. Attorney to consider leveling criminal charges against the retailers, such as Walmart and Kroger, as well." In his view, "these retailers set the specifications for the 'fresh fruits' and ignored them. These retailers required audits that they knew full well would generate a glowing inspection, all the while ignoring what was there to be seen. These retailers then used their market power to squeeze the supply chain of any profit that could have been invested in food safety.
"The relationship between retailers and auditor is simply a conspiracy to keep product flowing through the chain of distribution at the lowest costs, and an attempt to shield retailers from responsibility for the products that they sell," he allows.
Continue for more about the U.S. Attorney's Office actions against the Jensen brothers, including a video and a timeline.