For additional details on this case, please see, "UPDATED: Jensens face federal criminalharges in cantaloupe case"
Courtesy FDAIn less than two months, cantaloupe growers Eric and Ryan Jensen are scheduled to be tried on criminal charges because their fruit was linked to the 2011 listeria monocytogenes outbreak that killed at least 33.
The charges are bringing a debate to the industry. Some say the charges against the brothers aren’t enough and that others in the supply chain are also criminally liable. The Jensens each face sentences up to six years and up to $1.5 million in fines for the six charges they each face.
Others say it’s outrageous the Jensens are facing any charges, that the case signals a mindset within the U.S. Justice Department that could threaten all growers.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver aren’t saying much, partly because of the shutdown of the federal government. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena is prosecuting the case. He declined comment.
Jeffrey Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Denver office, said on Oct. 1 that charges against anyone else are “highly unlikely.”
Regarding why the Jensens face misdemeanor rather than felony charges, Dorschner said “the charges filed are the best most appropriate charges given the specific circumstances of this crime.” The applicable federal statute requires the government to prove intent for felony charges, but not for misdemeanors.
The lack of a need to prove the Jensens intentionally sent contaminated cantaloupes into commerce is a troubling point for growers of all commodities as far as one cantaloupe safety expert is concerned.
Coral BeachTrevor Suslow, an extension research specialist in produce safety at the University of California-Davis, says all growers should watch the case against Eric and Ryan Jensen closely. The cantaloupe-listeria case marks the first time growers have faced criminal charges in a foodborne illness outbreak. Trevor Suslow, University of California-Davis extension research specialist in preharvest to postharvest produce safety, said criminal charges of any level are excessive, “as they have not been applied to seemingly more egregious cases of adulteration in the past that did not result in this action.”
The Jensen case marks the first time for growers to face criminal charges in relation to a foodborne illness outbreak.
“I cannot agree with statements that the Jensens should have known that these (a lack of chlorine and no pre-cooling) were deficiencies in their standards of care for food safety of cantaloupes,” Suslow said. "If everyone tells you that everything is great and in good shape why would you question what you are doing?"