If you make people sick because you sell dirty food, the government would like you to know it is no longer playing.
On Thursday, U.S marshals acting on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's Office with the Food and Drug Administration arrested two brothers who owned and operated a Colorado cantaloupe farm directly linked to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and sickened 147 in 28 states, including four in California. It was the deadliest listeria outbreak in almost 90 years.
Eric and Ryan Jensen of the now-bankrupt Jensen Farms were each charged with six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, according to USA Today. Court documents also state that the cantaloupe "was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health." The brothers, who appeared in U.S. District Court in Denver and were released on a $100,000 bond, each face up to six years in prison and up to $1.5 million in fines. Their trial is set for December 2.
"As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe," said U.S. Atty. John Walsh. "They bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public. Where they fail to live up to that responsibility, and as these charges demonstrate, this office and the Food and Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law."
Attorney Bill Marler, who is representing 46 families in civil suits filed against the former farmers, said in a statement on his website that he was pleased the feds recognized "that some form of criminal sanctions were appropriate against Jensen Farms." Seattle-based Marler had first urged the U.S. Attorney's Office to consider criminal charges last year. (He'd still like them to go after Walmart and Kroger, who distributed the bad fruit.)
See also: Food recall archives.
Such charges in food-poisoning cases are rare, according to Marler. "The real significance of the case against the Jensens is they are being charged with misdemeanors, which do not require intent, just the fact that they shipped contaminated food using interstate commerce," he told USA Today.
After Thursday's hearing, the brothers released a statement characterizing the outbreak as a "terrible accident." As in, they accidentally forgot to keep their processing plant clean?
The Centers for Disease Control linked cantaloupe grown at Jensen Farms to the listeria outbreak that began in August 2011. A nationwide recall was issued for all whole and cut melon that could be traced to the farm. 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. The outbreak lasted until December 2011. Among the victims were three newborns and a miscarried fetus.
The FDA said the likely culprit was a used potato-washing machine bought just before the outbreak. FDA inspectors said the sorter was meant for raw potatoes and allowed dirty water to pool and recontaminate melons, which should have been given a chlorine bath. The agency also cited dirty water on the floor of the packing center.
"Several areas on both the washing and drying equipment appeared to be uncleanable, and dirt and product buildup was visible on some areas of the equipment," according to the FDA report.
"U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity," said Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office. "The filing of criminal charges in this deadly outbreak sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain."
Hear that, bagged salad purveyors?