Cantaloupe growers Eric and Ryan Jensen are seeking probation after pleading guilty to criminal charges in relation to the 2011 listeria outbreak traced to their fruit, detailing how they relied on a food safety auditor’s “superior” rating and didn’t know their operation was flawed.
Facing possible sentences of six years each, the Jensen brothers said in court documents that prison time would be “a harbinger of the end of small American family farmers. This irretrievable piece of Americana has already been damaged; it need not be destroyed.”
The brothers’ cantaloupe caused 33 deaths and 147 illnesses across 28 states according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Jensens each pleaded guilty to six federal misdemeanors of introducing contaminated food into the supply chain. Sentencing is set for Jan. 28 in Denver.
The probation requests reference a pre-sentence investigation report, which is not a public document, saying the probation officer who did the report did not find any evidence the brothers were aware their equipment or procedures were substandard.
“Additionally, there is no evidence to suggest that the defendant and codefendant ‘cut corners’ to save money in order to earn a greater profit by installing the new processing equipment,” Eric Jensen’s attorney wrote in the request. “It is readily apparent that the probation officer who authorized the report invested much time, effort and thought into this project. His recommendation for probation is reasonable.”
Many of the points in the probation requests are included in the Jensens’ federal lawsuit against PrimusLabs, whose parent company is Primus Group Inc., Santa Maria, Calif.
The brothers signed the case over to the 66 listeria victims and victims’ families who have filed civil cases in relation to the Jensens cantaloupe so any damages awarded will be paid to those victims.
PrimusLabs is named in all of the suits. Two federal judges and one state judge have dismissed Primus from cases in their jurisdictions. Bill Marler, the Seattle food safety attorney handling 45 of the victim cases as well as the Jensens’ case against Primus, said case law is mixed on the question of “duty to consumers,” but he believes many of the cases will go forward.
Primus continues to blame Jensens
PrimusLabs subcontracted the Jensens’ 2011 audit to Texas-based Bio Food Safety Inc. The Jensens contend the California company was negligent and breached its contract because the auditor failed to point out substandard conditions and equipment that federal officials later cited as the cause of the listeria contamination.