Jensen Farms owners, Eric and Ryan Jensen, plead guilty in deadly listeria cantaloupe case

DENVER - Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal criminal charges tied to a deadly listeria outbreak, but their attorneys insist there wasn't any intentional wrongdoing.

Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce in connection with the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people.

Each count is for a specific shipment:

- July 29: Utah, Colorado, Wyoming

- Aug. 1: Texas

- Aug. 3: Kansas

- Aug. 11: Oklahoma

- Aug. 15: Louisiana

- Aug. 26: New York

Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but the FDA has recently been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses. When the charges were filed, the Food and Drug Administration said the rare move was intended to send a message to food producers.

Attorneys for the Jensens said Tuesday's guilty plea was another step in bringing closure.

"The plea agreements reflect the continuing cooperation by Eric and Ryan Jensen with federal authorities since the investigation began in September 2011," a statement from the Jensen's attorney said. "The charges to which Ryan and Eric entered guilty pleads to do not imply any intentional wrongdoing or knowledge that the cantaloupes were contaminated."

According to a criminal complaint, Eric and Ryan Jensen were accused of introducing into interstate commerce cantaloupe contaminated with poisonous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. Court papers say the cantaloupe was "prepared, packed and held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health."

Court records state that the Jensen brothers set up and maintained a processing center where cantaloupes were taken from the field and transferred to a conveyor system for cleaning, cooling and packaging. The equipment should have worked in such a way that the cantaloupe would be washed with sufficient anti-bacterial solutions so that the fruit was cleaned of bacteria in the process.

But prosecutors allege that in May of 2011, the brothers changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. They installed a new system, originally built to clean potatoes, and it was supposed to include a catch pan with a chlorine spray that cleaned the fruit of bacteria.

The chlorine spray was never used, court records state.

The Jensens were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if it wasn't sufficiently washed, court records state.  If the chlorine spray had been used, it would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit, prosecutors say.

The Jensens have filed a lawsuit against a food-safety auditor that didn't pick up safety problems and gave the farm a "superior" rating just a month before the outbreak.

The Jensens are suing PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, Calif. food safety auditor, that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011. The PrimusLabs auditor didn't note that the Jensens' processing system posed a risk of contamination.

The brothers will be sentenced in January. They face up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.

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