UPDATED: Jensens plan to plead guilty

10/16/2013 09:00:00 AM
Coral Beach

For information on possible fallout from the Jensens’ case, please see “Effects of Jensen charges ripple through industry”

Jensen Farms cantaloupe sticker from 2011Courtesy FDAAt least 33 people died and at least 146 people across 28 states were sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because cantaloupes they ate in 2011 from Jensen Farms were contaminated with listeria monocytogenes.(UPDATED COVERAGE, 12:10 a.m.) The first growers to face criminal charges in relation to a foodborne illness outbreak plan to plead guilty, which could lead to reduced sentences for brothers charged in the 2011 cantaloupe-related listeria outbreak that killed at least 33 people.

The U.S. Attorney’s office negotiated the plea agreements with Eric Jensen, 37, and his brother Ryan Jensen, 33, but Judge Michael Hegarty can reject or amend the agreements. On Oct. 15, the Jensens filed a request with the U.S. District Court in Denver for a hearing on the pleas.

Each of the six charges they individually face carries up to one year in prison and $250,000 in fines.

If the judge grants the request, they are scheduled to enter their guilty pleas on Oct. 22.

Details of the plea agreements were not available Oct. 16. The Jensens’ attorneys indicated in court documents they would file the actual plea agreements before the Oct. 22 hearing.

Richard Banta, the attorney representing Ryan Jensen, confirmed Oct. 16 that the plea hearing requests had been filed, but declined further comment.

Staff in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the office said Oct. 3 that staff responses will be limited until the government shutdown is resolved.

The Jensens turned themselves in to federal authorities Sept. 26 in Denver and were released on $100,000 bonds. A jury trial was set for Dec. 2.

The six federal misdemeanor criminal charges against them state they allegedly introduced adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce. “Specifically, the cantaloupe bore a poisonous bacteria, listeria monocytogenes. … the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health,” according to court documents.

File photoThe government’s case against the Jensen brothers calls into question the packing facility, equipment and cooling areas, which an inspection report by the Food and Drug Administration said were not in line with good agricultural practices.

“In May of 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,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney.

“The defendants were aware 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.”

According to the FDA report, deficiencies at the packing facility included water pooling on floors, dirt and plant material on equipment, a floor that was difficult to clean, inadequate trench drains and equipment that could not be properly cleaned.

Multiple environmental samples and whole cantaloupe from the packing shed were positive for the outbreak strains of listeria monocytogenes, FDA reported.

“… it is likely that the contamination occurred in the packing facility,” the FDA report states. “It is also likely that the contamination proliferated during cold storage.”

The FDA inspectors reported all field samples were negative for listeria monocytogenes. The samples included soil, wild animal excrement, perimeter and furrow drag swabs, agricultural water, pond water and cantaloupes.

The agency also pointed to another likely contamination source, a truck used to haul culled cantaloupes from the packing shed to a cattle feeding operation.



Comments (8) Leave a comment 

Name
e-Mail (required)
Location

Comment:

characters left

Produce Guy    
Texas  |  October, 18, 2013 at 07:32 AM

This is just ridiculous!! Am I the only one that is worried about this development?? Why do we even bother to have corporations anymore?? Lenders and landlords have been circumventing the system by forcing small and medium size business owners to personally guarantee every contract and now this??! I understand criminal negligence, but anyone in the produce industry knows this is an extreme interpretation of the law and a very DANGEROUS precedent. Everyone of us in the industry should be very worried.

Jake's Farm    
Candler NC  |  October, 18, 2013 at 08:15 AM

I am Produce Guy... very worried that is. This is wrong on so many levels. These sort of actions have made my produce farm unsaleable and I am ready to retire. I cannot find an operator to take over.

Scott    
Illinois  |  October, 18, 2013 at 09:10 AM

33+ pleople died! and we have just seen another Listeria contamination/recall on Cantalaloupes just this week in Michigan. At what point are you so called "Produce Guys" going to realize that if we don't take new steps to imporove our quality control as an industry, the state and federal goverments will have to do it for us. Is this dangerous? It is and should be to those that hurt people and our industry with greed and stupidity. The solutions like test and hold and incoporating the use of Ozone for product and cooler sanitation are inexpensive and proven. So let's get to work!

Levi    
October, 18, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Test and hold doesn't work for fresh perishable product. Testing takes too long.

no longer growin vegies    
Idaho  |  October, 18, 2013 at 11:22 AM

These guys were told by Extension people to use a chlorine bath. They DID NOT!! I also worry about liability but the jensens have no excuse. They were complacent or just plain cheapskates. That is criminal. Follow your regulations get inspected and produce a healthy and wholesome product. Farmers want to feed people not kill them.

produce guy    
Texas  |  October, 18, 2013 at 12:06 PM

1) There are no "cheap" sanitation solutions. The problems here are mostly due to the layout and age of their packing house, their equipment and their procedures. In order to do things "right", you pretty much have to start from scratch with facilities and equipment that are designed to meet new food safety regulations and that are, pretty much, new. If you are anywhere familiar with the industry, you would know that most produce facilities are not nearly adequate. 2) The precedent here is that company owners now have to be experts and know 100% there is to know about food safety, equipment, procedures etc.. or be criminally negligent. If you ever owned a business, you know that this is pretty difficult, if not impossible. The economics of the produce industry have traditionally not attracted the most qualified people to begin with and to expect to change this overnight is ludicrous. 3) Short of cooking the heck out of things and eating them immediately after, it is IMPOSSIBLE to be 100% sure that your food is safe to eat. Produce can be made safer, but we need to start by realizing that WE (ALL OF US) are going to have to pay for it! Big retail chains (like the ones these melons where destined for) need to stop killing suppliers demanding ridiculously cheap prices and, most importantly, ALL OF US have to be willing to pay more at the store. Companies ultimately supply what we demand and buy. Let's start supporting companies that do things right and we will improve things. Making the Jensen Brothers a scapegoat for this horrible tragedy is not the answer.

Josh    
Florida  |  October, 18, 2013 at 03:25 PM

Produce Guy, No joke. The company I work for spent 3.5 million on a new facility and in the Eastern US. We are a Grower/packer/shipper, not a broker, and this was a major expense, for one project and one commodity. The expense was crazy. The entire line is stainless steel, a Greefa designed line. We used the most recommend sanitize, and every precaution was taken to limit "hands" on the melons, and our food safety staff dedicated themselves to cantaloupe, and the design of this facility. Though the real question is demand. Walmart used considerable less product (Kroger picked up a lot of business apparently), we need to ask ourselves is there still a market for non-westerns (eastern Varieties), and are eastern varieties too risky.

Josh    
Florida  |  October, 18, 2013 at 03:34 PM

Scott, Show me the studies? I have never seen studies that says ozone is effective as a single sanitizer for cantaloupe. Cl2 using a spray bar system has much more data behind it. The real problem is the flumes (dump tanks) many eastern growers use. It doesn't matter if you use accutab or primitively "dump" the chlorine in, flumes are not safe. Second, it is interesting you say improve "quality control," would be an improved food safety that is a fallacy. In reality, food safety and quality are in a fierce battle. I could steam or boil the cantaloupe, good for food safety, not for the cantaloupe. I could also hold the melon while the lab runs test, but it may not be fit for consumption by the time the results come back. Many of the steps to provide a safe product from a food safety prospective, low the quality of the melon. Personally I would prefer a melon right out of the field, and that is where I get mine. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to consume it there anymore :)

Feedback Form
Leads to Insight