In 2011, the United States saw one of its worst food-borne sicknesses in its history: 33 people were killed and 147 more faced serious illness. Yesterday, the two men responsible for the outbreak, Eric and Ryan Jensen, were arrested and charged for a misdemeanor account of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
The charge is a rare one. The U.S. Attorney’s office usually does not press charges against farmers for food-borne illnesses, mainly due to issues of origin and culpability. However, this case is different due to the ease in which the FDA was able to track down the origins of the outbreak, and due to the large number of people affected by the sickness.
There are six charges brought against each other the brothers, and each charge carries a year in prison and a $250,000 fine, totaling 6 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines, if the brothers are charged.
Eric and Ryan Jensen’s lawyer issued a statement in which he expressed his clients’ innocence: “The charges against Eric and Ryan Jensen do not imply that they knew, or even should have known, that the cantaloupes had been contaminated. As they were from the first day of this tragedy, the Jensens remain shocked, saddened, and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families.”
William Marler, the lawyer who represents the majority of the families affected by the outbreak, stated that intent does not matter in regards to the charges, however: “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.”
A news release from the US Department of Justice outlines exactly how they believe the brothers were responsible for aiding the outbreak of listeria. Typically, fruit such as cantaloupes are supposed to be taken from the field, cleaned with an antibacterial solution, and stored properly in a cool area. The brothers had been following this process routinely until 2011, when they decided to but new equipment to help the process.
The equipment they bought, however, was not made to handle cantaloupes. In fact, it was a conveyor cleaner meant for potatoes. Not only that, the equipment was previously used and not properly cleaned. “As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe. 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,” stated John Walsh, US Attorney for the District of Colorado.
Other potential sources of contamination of the cantaloupes include unsanitary warehouse conditions, such as standing pools of water on the floor, improper cooling techniques once the cantaloupes had been picked, and a delivery truck that transported cantaloupes to a cattle operation nearby.
Listeriosis is a sickness caused by the listeria bacteria and primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, children, and adults with compromised immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions. One of the reasons listeriosis can be so serious is that symptoms may not show themselves for quite some time if the bacteria is consumed by a healthy adult.
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