Farmers can't wash a cantaloupe the same way they wash potatoes.
That's just one lesson farmers Eric and Ryan Jensen are learning from the deadly listeria outbreak that killed at least 33 people in 2011 after contaminated fruit spread to 28 states. The brothers, who run Jensen Farms, turned themselves in on Thursday, September 26, for allegedly introducing adulterated cantaloupe into interstate markets.
The arrest marks an extremely rare move from federal regulators, and could result in a steep penalty. The two were each charged with six counts of adulteration of a food, and aiding and abetting. If convicted, they face up to a year in prison and a maximum of $1.5 million in fines, each.
At the time when the outbreak was originally linked to Jensen Farms melons, the brothers released a statement saying they were deeply saddened to learn their cantaloupes had created "this terrible situation."
Jensen Farms has a processing center where cantaloupes are first taken from the field and then sent through a conveyer system for cleaning, cooling, and packaging. In May 2011, the Jensens were accused of changing their system to install a new system that was actually built to clean potatoes.
They failed to use an anti-bacterial chlorine wash that federal prosecutors say "would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit."
It is rare for farmers to face federal charges, but it's absolutely critical to crack down on violators to protect the American public, said Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations.
“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,” Holland said.