DENVER – The owners of a Colorado cantaloupe farm were arrested Thursday on charges stemming from a 2011 listeria epidemic that killed 33 people in one of the nation’s deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Federal prosecutors said brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were arrested on misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They pleaded not guilty in federal court and were released on unsecured bonds.
Prosecutors said the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control determined that the Jensens didn’t adequately clean the cantaloupe.
Criminal charges in food poisoning cases are rare, said attorney William Marler, who represents many of the listeria victims in civil cases. Only four other people have faced such charges in the past decade, he said.
Marler pointed to the type of charges against the brothers, noting felonies would have required prosecutors to show that the contamination was intentional.
The FDA has said the melons were likely contaminated in Jensen Farms’ packing house. It concluded that dirty water on a floor, and old, hard-to-clean equipment were probably to blame.
The epidemic was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years, and it delivered a serious blow to Colorado cantaloupe farmers. The CDC said people living in 28 states consumed the contaminated fruit.
The dirty equipment was previously used to wash and dry potatoes, and the listeria could have been introduced as a result.