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Jensen brothers get probation, home detention over 33 deaths from tainted cantaloupe

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As we reported last September, a document filed by U.S. Attorney John Walsh's office maintained that the Jensens "allegedly introduced adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce. Specifically, the cantaloupe bore a poisonous bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes. The Information further states that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health."

This last statement is key. The Centers for Disease Control long ago linked the fruit to Jensen Farms, via an impressive exhibition of scientific detective work sketched out in a detailed timeline seen in both text and graphic form. See both on the second page of this post.

The results were undeniably tragic. Beyond the aforementioned 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations, the U.S. Attorneys Office points out that a pregnant woman who ate some of the cantaloupe subsequently suffered a miscarriage and ten other people who had been infected also died, albeit not directly from Listeriosis. Moreover, the impact was sweeping: The six shipments of cantaloupe found to have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes were sent to 28 different states.

The trick for prosecutors was establishing that the contamination came as a result of criminal neglect. They argued that the farm's processing center, including a conveyor system for cleaning, cooling and packaging the cantaloupe, should have "worked in such a way that the cantaloupe would be washed with sufficient anti-bacterial solutions so that the fruit was cleaned of bacteria."

But in May 2011, the brothers allegedly switched to a new system that was built to clean potatoes. The device included a catch pan "to which a chlorine spray could be included to clean the fruit of bacteria," but prosecutors say it was never used. They also argue that "the defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed." This action, they believe, constituted criminal conduct and justified charges of introducing "adulterated cantaloupe into interstate commerce."

These assertions appear to have persuaded the Jensens to work with authorities, rather than drag the matter through even more years of litigation -- a point stressed by U.S. Attorney Walsh in a statement released after the sentencing.

"The prosecution recommended probation in this case because of the defendants' unique cooperation, including their willingness to meet with Congress and their willingness to meet with and be confronted by the victims of their misconduct," Walsh notes. "They have committed to continue their cooperation, and have publicly and privately expressed sincere remorse. In short, they have done everything we have asked of them to mitigate the damage done."

Of course, nothing can restore the losses suffered by the friends, family members and loved ones of the victims in the case, as Walsh acknowledges. Still, the Jensens are receiving punishment beyond mere public censure. In addition to the probation and home detention, they've also been ordered to perform 100 hours of community service apiece and pay restitution of $150,000 -- $25,000 for each of six counts against them, with the money going to victims.

Although that's a pittance, other outbreak-related litigation continues. Attorney Bill Marler's firm, Marler Clark, has resolved all complaints against the Jensens, who filed for bankruptcy in 2012. But a Marler Clark post points out that litigation on behalf of 45 victims -- 28 who died and seventeen sickened by consuming the tainted fruit -- continues against retailers such as Walmart and Kroger, King Soopers' parent company, in multiple states. Marler estimates medical expenses for those involved exceeds $12 million.

Continue for more about the listeria outbreak, including a video and a timeline.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts