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Published October 21, 2013, 11:24 AM

Farmers tied to listeria illnesses to plead guilty

The 2011 outbreak killed 33 people.

By: Colleen Slevin, Associated Press

DENVER — Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers plan to plead guilty under a deal with federal prosecutors in connection with the 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people in the nation’s deadliest case of foodborne illness in a quarter century.

Eric and Ryan Jensen were charged last month with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration said the rare move was intended to send a message to food producers.

Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but the FDA under President Barack Obama has been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses.

The brothers filed documents Oct. 15 notifying the court that they would plead guilty to unspecified charges under the agreements. Details typically aren’t disclosed until the hearing where defendants formally change their pleas.

Ryan Jensen’s lawyer, Richard Banta, declined comment Oct. 16 and Eric Jensen’s lawyer didn’t immediately return a call. A prosecutors’ spokesman wasn’t available to comment because of the government shutdown.

According to the FDA, conditions at Jensen Farms in southeast Colorado led to the 2011 outbreak. Federal investigators say the melons likely were contaminated in the farm’s packing house because of dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment.

Officials say people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit, and 147 required hospitalization.

The Jensens each faced up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines had they been convicted of all of the original charges against them. Their lawyers have requested that they be allowed to change their pleas on Oct. 22, but the judge hasn’t set a date yet.

In another ongoing case related to foodborne illness, four former employees of a peanut company were charged in February in Georgia federal court with scheming to manufacture and ship tainted peanuts. A 2009 salmonella outbreak blamed on the peanuts killed nine people and sickened hundreds.

The four pleaded not guilty.

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