Deadly Cantaloupe Outbreak Probed by U.S. Prosecutors

Jensen Farms, the U.S. cantaloupe processor linked to the listeria outbreak last year that killed at least 30 people, is the subject of a criminal investigation by the federal government, according to a lawyer for victims.

Bill Marler, a lawyer at Marler Clark LLP, sent an e-mail on Aug. 12 to clients alerting them that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado had started a probe, which he said is unusual for foodborne illness incidents. The listeria outbreak, which also sickened 146 people, was the deadliest in almost 90 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A congressional investigation found the incident may have been avoided if Granada, Colorado-based Jensen Farms had followed U.S. food-safety guidelines. The company, which filed for bankruptcy in Denver this year, has $2.5 million from liability insurance set aside in a trust for victims, Marler said. Some family members have called for a criminal prosecution.

“The investigators were here three weeks ago and we turned over all the files on death cases to them,” Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who represents 42 victims of the outbreak, including the families of about 20 people who died, said in an interview. “It’s an ongoing investigation.”

Prison Time

The probe focuses on the actions of brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, owners of Jensen Farms, which produced the cantaloupe, Marler said. James Markus, a lawyer in Denver representing Jensen Farms, didn’t return an e-mail or telephone call placed yesterday seeking comment. An attempt to reach Markus today was also unsuccessful, as were efforts to locate the Jensen brothers.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the Denver-based U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment.

Putting tainted food into the marketplace violates the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and can lead to prison time of not more than a year for a misdemeanor and as many as three years for a felony, Marler said.

Marler said $5 million total is being put into a trust for victims. The money includes funds from Jensen Farms, Pepper Equipment Corp. of Colorado, which sold equipment to Jensen, and Rio Hondo, Texas-based BioFood Safety Inc., a subcontractor hired to do a third-party audit, which helps assure food safety, of the operation.

The amount that may swell to $20 million, Marler said. Lawsuits also are pending against retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

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