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