The 2011 Listeria Outbreak: Outcome of the Jensen Criminal Trial

Jensen Brothers Found Guilty in Case Associated with the Listeria Outbreak

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It's been years since the 2011 Listeria outbreak that caused the deaths of at least 33 people and lead to the hospitalization of another 147 people across the country, but the name Jensen remains in the news as the criminal and civil trials related to the outbreak have slowly come to their conclusions. The criminal case against the Jensens has become a milestone in foodborne illness litigation as it was one of the first cases in which food producers faced criminal charges for their contaminated food.​

The Jensen Brother's Guilty Plea

It wasn't until two years after the deadly outbreak that Eric and Ryan Jensen -- former owners and operators of Jensen Farms, the source of a lethal listeria outbreak -- pled guilty to all six counts of the government’s information which charged them with the introduction of adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce. At the time, the plea was welcomed as previously the brothers and co-owners plead not guilty despite strong evidence of fault. In response to the new plea, U.S. Attorney John Walsh released a serious statement:

“The defendants have now admitted that they failed to protect the public from deadly bacteria on their cantaloupe, in violation of the law and critical FDA requirements. Their actions resulted in tragedy nationwide, and profound economic consequences for an entire industry, and have exposed them to these serious criminal consequences.”

But how did we get here? The process has been long and arduous, but the Jensen plea agreement steps us through the major highlights of the outbreak and how it could have been avoided.

2011 Listeria Outbreak Background

According to the Jensen plea agreement, in May 2011 the Jensen brothers entered an agreement with Pepper Equipment Co.

to provide a new conveyor system originally designed for the use of harvesting potatoes. Per request of the Jensens, the system was modified to include a catch pan that would utilize a chlorine spray to reduce the risk of microbial contamination; the Jensens failed to set up the chlorine spray. In July 2011, a food safety inspector acting on behalf of third-party auditor Primus Labs, conducted an audit of the Jensen Farms packing facility tallying a “superior” score of 96 percent.

But at the beginning of September 2011, the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPHE) notified the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and FDA of a significant increase in the average number of listeriosis cases reported in Colorado each month. All infected patients reported eating cantaloupe prior to the onset of symptoms. The CDPHE and FDA began investigations that identified the strains of Listeria monocytogenes identified in the infected patients and linked them to Jensen Farms. The company proceeded to voluntarily recall shipments of cantaloupes.

In October 2011, the FDA issued a warning letter to the Jensen Brothers stating “a significant percentage of [environmental] swabs that tested positive for outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes demonstrates widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility."

The Aftermath of the Outbreak

According to the CDC and the FDA, the Jensen brothers failed to adequately sanitize their cantaloupe. The resulting outbreak-associated illness affected people living in 28 states and resulted in 33 deaths and a total of 147 hospitalizations. Ten additional deaths occurred among other people who ate the contaminated cantaloupe, but not specifically as a result of Listeriosis. One woman pregnant at the time had an illness-related miscarriage. It was the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak recorded in the United States since the CDC began tracking outbreaks in the 1970s.

In addition to criminal charges, the Jensen brothers' farm faced bankruptcy as a result of the many civil suits filed in the wake of the outbreak.

The Criminal Trial Conclusion

Originally pleading not guilty in September 2013, the Jensens changed their plea to guilty of six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting by the following month. If convicted, each defendant faced up to a year in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 per count.

Ultimately, the brothers were sentenced to five years probation, six months of home detention, and $150,000 each in restitution fees to the outbreak's victims. While many believed that the Jensen brothers should have seen jail time for their involvement in the outbreak, that fact that there was no malicious intent behind their food safety failures lead others, the prosecution included, to see probation as a more appropriate response.

Even after the Jensens' criminal sentencing, the story and civil trials related to the 2011 Listeria outbreak were not over.

Jensen Brothers File Suit Against Primus Group, Inc.

Both the Jensen plea agreement and Jensen Farms suit filed against Primus Group Inc. included a comment from James R. Gorny, PhD., at the time senior advisor for Produce Safety, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA. Gorny gave the impression that both parties were at fault; Jensen Farms for deviating from industry standards by failing to use an anti-microbial during processing and Primus Labs for its deficiency in its inspection and findings.

Believing the safety audit conducted by Primus in July 2011 just before the outbreak was not done with suitable care, Jensen Farms claims Primus is in breach of contract. Jensen Farms attorney Forrest W. Lewis filed suit against Primus Group Inc. for negligence on five counts:

  • Failure to properly score the audit to alert Jensen to deficiencies which could have been corrected
  • Failure to provide a reasonable audit form and scoring system which considered industry standards and best practices even where no specific FDA requirement applied
  • Failure to discuss possible hazards from the new system and the removal of the chlorinated wash
  • Failure to identify cleaning issues with the new conveyor and suggest procedures tailored to that specific equipment
  • Failure to adequately train and supervise the person conducting the audit

It was said that any money awarded from the lawsuit will go toward the payment of restitution to the outbreak's victims and their families.

Sources

"Information on the Recalled Jensen Farms Whole Cantaloupes ." U.S. Food and Drug Administration, January 2012.

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