Listeria: Farmers Get Probation for Deadly Outbreak


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The deadly listeria outbreak in 2011 was caused by cantaloupes that were contained in a Colorado packing house with a dirty floor and dirty processing equipment. The foodborne illness killed 33 people and sickened 147 others. It was the deadliest food outbreak in almost 100 years. Today, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, the cantaloupe farmers that were responsible for the country-wide devastation got a big break.

They could have each been sentenced to six years in prison. However, Judge Michael E. Hegarty decided that the farmers would be better off as free men working toward paying the $150,000 each in restitution and supporting their own families. Both men will serve five years probation, six months house detention and 100 hours of community service.

The Jensens did not know that they were shipping deadly fruit. In fact, their farm had received a superior rating by auditors just one month before the deadly outbreak occurred. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie Pena called the devastation an "American tragedy" and lauded the Jensens for their full cooperation with the law.

Traditionally, the government does not prosecute farmers for the unintentional spread of foodborne illness. However, in this particular case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wanted to send out a warning to anyone responsible for the production and handling of food.

Both brothers apologized in court to the family and friends of the victims, some of whom attended the sentencing. Ryan Jensen said, "My most sincere apologies and deepest regrets." He added, "I do know that much has been gained in food safety understanding both here and outside the country because of this." Eric Jensen also apologized, "This has been a huge tragedy. We are very, very, sorry. We hope it leads to better understanding of food safety."

Listeria is a bacteria that can be found in animals, soil, raw milk and water. The germs cause the infection referred to as listeriosis. Pregnant women, newborns and the elderly have the most difficulty fighting the disease. The best way to prevent listeria is through proper food sanitation and food handling.

Image via Wikimedia Commons