Harvest Public Media field note
7:52 pm
Wed October 23, 2013

Guilty plea to criminal charges has implications for the entire food industry

Credit News21 – National/Flickr

The Colorado farmers who distributed cantaloupes infected with listeria two years ago pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges Tuesday. Jensen Farms, located outside Holly, Colo., was the source of the outbreak that killed 33 people nationwide.

The outbreak was the deadliest in more than 20 years. Cantaloupes processed in the summer of 2011 at Jensen Farms near the Kansas border were laden with Listeria. It’s a pathogen infamous for its high mortality rate.

Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen owned the farm at the time. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration brought criminal charges against the two men. Both face up to six years in jail and thousands in fines. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for January.

In 2011, Jensen Farms allegedly changed its cantaloupe cleaning system, according to a statement from the U.S. District Attorney’s Colorado office, which prosecuted the case. Prosecutors say the Jensens’ cleaning system, built for potatoes not cantaloupe, was insufficient. It lacked a chlorine bath, meant to reduce the risk of harmful bacteria. The Jensens were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed, prosecutors say.

“The defendants have now admitted that they failed to protect the public from deadly bacteria on their cantaloupe, in violation of the law and critical FDA requirements,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh.  “Their actions resulted in tragedy nationwide, and profound economic consequences for an entire industry, and has exposed them to these serious criminal consequences.”

It’s rare for farmers to face criminal charges in the wake of a foodborne illness outbreak. Colorado State University food safety expert Mike Bartolo says news of the Jensen brothers’ arrest sent ripples throughout the produce industry.

“Certainly there’s a lot of concern because this is very much unprecedented and I think a lot of people throughout the industry understand that,” Bartolo says.

Growers in Colorado’s Rocky Ford area are famous for cantaloupe production. Since the deadly outbreak, growers there have spent countless time, energy and money to repair their image.

The Jensens maintain they didn’t cause the outbreak on purpose, and are now suing a private auditing firm that gave their farm good marks for food safety just weeks before people started getting sick.

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In a related development with further implications for the food industry, the Jensen brothers are suing PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, CA-based food-safety consultant that provides “internationally recognized audits” for food producers, charging that the firm was negligent in auditing their cantaloupe fields and packing facility in July 2011, shortly before their cantaloupe was linked to the Listeria outbreak.  PrimusLabs subcontracted with Bio Food Safety for the actual inspection and Bio’s inspector “gave Jensen a score of 96 percent and a ‘superior’ rating at the conclusion of the audit,” according to the Jensens’ lawsuit. 

Third-party auditors such as PrimusLabs and Bio Food Safety “have often come in for criticism from food-safety advocates after major outbreaks of foodborne illness for issuing reports that, in hindsight, appear way too rosy”, according to Food Safety News.  Click here for further details on the suit from Food Safety News.  (Note: this article was written before the Jensen’s entered their pleas in court on October 22, 2013.) 

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