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U.S. Prosecutors Probe Deadly Cantaloupe Outbreak

Listeria-tainted cantaloupe sickened people in 28 states last year
Listeria-tainted cantaloupe sickened people in 28 states last year

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado is looking into dropping the hammer on Jensen Farms, the cantaloupe processor linked to a Listeria outbreak last year that killed at least 30 people. The company is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the federal government, Businessweek reports.

Bill Marler, a lawyer at Marler Clark LLP, sent an email on August 12 to clients suing Jensen alerting them of the probe, which he said is unusual for foodborne illness incidents. The Listeria outbreak, which also sickened 146 people across 28 states (including California), was the deadliest in almost a century, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. Ninety-nine percent of victims were hospitalized.

A congressional investigation found the outbreak might have been avoided if Granada, Colo.-based Jensen had followed U.S. food-safety guidelines. The company has filed for bankruptcy since the incident.

"The investigators were here three weeks ago and we turned over all the files on death cases to them," Marler, a Seattle- based lawyer who represents 42 victims of the outbreak, told Businessweek. "It's an ongoing investigation."

The probe focuses on the actions of brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, owners of Jensen Farms. Releasing tainted food into the marketplace violates the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and can lead to prison time of one to three years.

Lawsuits also are pending against retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that sold the tainted fruit.

About 800 laboratory-confirmed cases of Listeria infection are reported each year in the United States, and typically three or four outbreaks are identified. The foods that typically cause outbreaks are deli meats, hot dogs, and Mexican-style soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Produce is not often identified as a source, but sprouts caused an outbreak in 2009, and celery caused an outbreak in 2010, according to the CDC.

But don't worry, Jensen brothers. Cantaloupe can be used to make pruno.


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