Denver, Colo. – The owners of a cantaloupe farm that was linked to a Listeria outbreak in 2011 that killed 33 people and sickened hundreds more were criminally charged on Thursday.
The DenverPost.com reports that two Colorado brothers turned themselves into U.S. federal marshals and pleaded not guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into the food supply.
Eric and Ryan Jensen are fourth-generation family farmers and were shackled at the wrists during their federal court hearing.
CTVNews.ca reports that the charges are little-used misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Only four other people have faced such charges in the past decade. Jeff Dorschner, a spokesperson for the federal prosecutors, reports CTVNews.ca, said the misdemeanor charges were the “best, most serious charge we could find.”
When asked why the Jensens were charged when few food-poisoning cases end up in criminal court, Dorschner told CTVNews.ca that in this case prosecutors were compelled to act because the outbreak was so serious and widespread. Cases of illness were reported in 28 states and 147 people were hospitalized.
The DenverPost.com reports that the outbreak began in September 2011 and was eventually linked to Jensen Farms. The newspaper reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially linked 33 deaths and a miscarriage to the outbreak, although 10 other people who had been infected with Listeria bacteria after eating Jensen cantaloupe have also died.
The federal charges each carry up to one year in prison and a US$250,000 fine. A trial date has been set for Dec. 2.
The lawyers for the Jensen brothers say the farm cooperated with investigators all along.
In a statement, the lawyers added that the charges against the Jensens don’t imply that they brothers knew or even should have known that the cantaloupes had been contaminated.
The DenverPost.ca also reports that many widespread cases of foodborne illness go without prosecution of growers or distributors. And victims and food safety experts expressed surprise and satisfaction that charges were laid. They said highlighting sloppy practices would send the system a message about food safety.