File photo of cantaloupe (Getty)
Chris Vanderveen, KUSA-TV, Denver
HOLLY, Colo. - Two brothers who owned and operated a cantaloupe farm directly linked to a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people were arrested Thursday.
Eric and Ryan Jensen, ages 37 and 33, of the now-bankrupt Jensen Farms were arrested on six misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They are to appear at 2 p.m. MT Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver and face up to a year in federal prison.
The cantaloupe grower was directly linked to a national listeria outbreak that killed at least 33 and sickened another 147 people in 2011, one of the country's most deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness.
The lawyer who represents 46 families in several civil lawsuits against the farmers issued a statement on his website Wednesday saying he was pleased the U.S. Attorney's office has recognized "that some form of criminal sanctions were appropriate against Jensen Farms." Lawyer Bill Marler of Seattle first urged the U.S. Attorney's Office to consider criminal charges last year.
He could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control linked cantaloupe grown at Jensen Farms to the listeria outbreak that began at the end of August 2011. In October of that year, the Food and Drug Administration found that Jensen Farms' packing and storage facilities likely helped spread the listeria and directly contributed to the outbreak. Cases associated with the strain of listeria traced to Jensen Farms ended in December 2011.
Listeriosis from listeria bacteria is a serious infection that primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. Fever and muscle aches sometimes accompanying diarrhea or other digestive problems. Pregnant women face a risk of miscarriage, which one survivor did experience. Convulsions also are possible in the worst cases, according to the CDC.
The FDA said one piece of equipment, a used potato washing machine, was a possible cause of the outbreak and cited dirty water on the floor as well.
"Several areas on both the washing and drying equipment appeared to be un-cleanable, and dirt and product buildup was visible on some areas of the equipment," according to the FDA report.
The way the cantaloupes were cooled after being picked may have exacerbated the listeria growth, the FDA said. Another possible source of contamination was a truck that frequently hauled cantaloupe to a cattle operation and was parked near the packing house.
The outbreak was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness since 1924. The CDC said people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe.
The outbreak was a setback for farms in southeast Colorado's Rocky Ford cantaloupe region, where hot, sunny days and cold nights produce fruit known for its distinct sweetness.
Jensen Farms was located about 90 miles east of Rocky Ford, but the Jensens used the Rocky Ford name and sales dropped across the region. Later, Rocky Ford farmers patented the Rocky Ford name, hired a full-time food safety manager and built a central packing operation where melons are washed and rinsed.