Friday, September 27, 2013

Jenson Brothers, Growers of Tainted Canteloupes, Arrested

The Jensen brothers, owners of the farm that grew and packed the Listeria tainted cantaloupes which were responsible for killing 33, have been arrested and now face jail time for the incident. This is in addition to having their farm go bankrupt, one owned by the family for generations. 

This case is a huge deal for all food operations in that owners/managers are facing prison for a foodborne outbreak. While all basically agree that there was no intent by the Jensen brothers, it is the fact that the shipped contaminated product from an operation with food safety lapses that have led to the misdemeanor charges, where intent is not a factor. The food safety lapses can be summed up”

1) They installed a potato washer to wash cantaloupes. It did not wash cantaloupes well, it did not cool them, and the equipment was not easy to clean. Because it was not easy to clean, it actually served as a source of contamination. By not cooling, the warmer temperatures provided better growing conditions for Listeria on the outside of the cantaloupe.

2) The chlorine sanitizer spray system was not operational.

The later point is worth noting. In certain applications, it is easy to overlook these microbial reduction interventions. Who knows, perhaps the location of the spray nozzles were located at a point where the chlorine would be quickly inactivated because of the solids on the cantaloupes, so they decided not to hook them up. 

It can be easy to look at a number of bacterial reduction interventions and wonder if there is a significant impact versus the cost of operating that intervention, or operating it at the level it should be operated. Or even maintaining the appropriate verification steps (checking concentration, conducing bacterial counts before and after) to ensure that the intervention is operating at that level it is supposed to be operating. 

So when the unfortunate event occurs, in this case one of the most deadly foodborne outbreaks in US history, investigators are going to look at everything - Is the process right for the products it is processing? Are the appropriate antimicrobial systems in place that are standard in the industry? Are the antimicrobials systems that are in place working, and are they operating at the right parameters? 

Companies need to use this case as a reason to review all processes, with specific attention to these antimicrobial interventions. If a system is in place, make sure it is working as it designed. If these systems are not operating, then either fix it. If they have been abandoned, then move it, replace it or remove it.

Note that these brothers are just farmers, one 37 years old, and the other 33. While the thought of jail time probably pales in comparison to the responsibility for 33 deaths, they probably wonder how some poor decisions led to where they are now.

United States Attorney’s Office – District of Colorado
New Release

Eric and Ryan Jensen charged with introducing tainted cantaloupe into interstate commerceFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

September 26, 2013

DENVER – Eric Jensen, age 37, and Ryan Jensen, age 33, brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms, located in Granada, Colorado, presented themselves to U.S. Marshals in Denver today, where taken into custody on federal charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the Food and Drug Administration – Office of Criminal Investigation, United States Attorney John Walsh and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Office of Criminal Investigations Special Agent in Charge Patrick Holland announced. The Information charges the brothers with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The defendants are scheduled to make their initial appearance this afternoon at 2:00 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty. At that hearing they will be advised of their rights as well as the charges pending against them.

According to the six-count Information filed under restriction on September 24, 2013, as well as other court records, Eric and Ryan Jensen 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.

Court documents state that the defendants set up and maintained a processing center where cantaloupes were taken from the field and transferred to a conveyor system for cleaning, cooling and packaging. The equipment 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 in the process.

In May of 2011 the Jensen brothers allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system. The new system, built to clean potatoes, was installed, and was to include a catch pan to which a chlorine spray could be included to clean the fruit of bacteria. The chlorine spray, however, was never used. The defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed. The chlorine spray, if used, would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit.

Investigation by the FDA and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) determined that the defendants failed to adequately clean their cantaloupe. Their actions allegedly resulted in at least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes being sent to 28 different states. The CDC tracked the outbreak-associated illness and determined that people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe, resulting in 33 deaths and 147 hospitalizations. Further, one woman pregnant at the time of her outbreak-related illness had a miscarriage. Ten additional deaths not attributed to Listeriosis occurred among persons who had been infected by eating outbreak-related cantaloupe.

“As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe,” said U.S. Attorney John Walsh. “They bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public. Where they fail to live up to that responsibility, and as these charges demonstrate, this office and the Food and Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law.”

“U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office. “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.”

Both defendants have been charged with six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. If convicted, each faces not more than one year in federal prison, and a fine of up to $250,000 per charge.

This case was investigated by the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, the Center for Disease Control and the State of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The defendants are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena.

These charges are only allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

USA Today September 26, 2013

Colo. farmers arrested in listeria outbreak that killed 33

The listeria outbreak connected to Jensen Farms' cantaloupes began in late August 2011.

HOLLY, Colo. — Two brothers who owned and operated a cantaloupe farm directly linked to a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people pleaded not guilty Thursday to criminal charges stemming from the incidents.

Eric and Ryan Jensen, ages 37 and 33, of the now-bankrupt Jensen Farms were arrested Thursday and each charged with six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.

The men appeared Thursday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Denver and were released on a $100,000 unsecured bond. The Jensens each could face up to six years in prison and up to $1.5 million in fines if they are convicted of all six counts, prosecutors said.

Their trial is scheduled for Dec. 2.

The cantaloupe growers' farm is considered the source of a national listeria outbreak that killed at least 33 and sickened another 147 people in 2011, one of the country's most deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness, according to government investigators.

The lawyer who represents 46 families in several civil lawsuits against the farmers issued a statement on his website Wednesday saying he was pleased the U.S. Attorney's Office has recognized "that some form of criminal sanctions were appropriate against Jensen Farms." Lawyer Bill Marler of Seattle first urged the U.S. Attorney's Office to consider criminal charges last year.

Criminal charges in food poisoning cases are rare, Marler said Thursday. Only four other people have faced such charges in the past decade.

He noted that felony charges would have required prosecutors to show the contamination was intentional.

"The real significance of the case against the Jensens is they are being charged with misdemeanors, which do not require intent, just the fact that they shipped contaminated food using interstate commerce," he said.

After Thursday's hearing, the men released a statement calling the outbreak a "terrible accident" and saying they were shocked and saddened by it. The statement said the charges do not imply they knew about the contamination or that they should have known about it.

The misdemeanor "was the best, most serious charge we could find," said Jeff Dorschner, the prosecutors' spokesman. Prosecutors decided to pursue the case because so many people were affected.

The Centers for Disease Control linked cantaloupe grown at Jensen Farms to the listeria outbreak that began at the end of August 2011. In October of that year, the Food and Drug Administration found that Jensen Farms' packing and storage facilities likely helped spread the listeria and directly contributed to the outbreak. Cases associated with the strain of listeria traced to Jensen Farms ended in December 2011.

Listeriosis from listeria bacteria is a serious infection that primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. Fever and muscle aches sometimes accompanying diarrhea or other digestive problems. Pregnant women face a risk of miscarriage, which one survivor did experience. Convulsions also are possible in severe cases, according to the CDC.

The FDA said one piece of equipment, a used potato washing machine bought just before the outbreak, was its possible cause and cited dirty water on the floor of the packing center as well.

"Several areas on both the washing and drying equipment appeared to be un-cleanable, and dirt and product buildup was visible on some areas of the equipment," according to the FDA report.

The way the cantaloupes were cooled after being picked may have exacerbated the listeria growth, the FDA said. Another possible source of contamination was a truck that frequently hauled cantaloupe to a cattle operation and was parked near the packing house.

The outbreak was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness since 1924. The CDC said people living in 28 states consumed contaminated cantaloupe.

The outbreak was a setback for farms in southeast Colorado's Rocky Ford cantaloupe region, where hot, sunny days and cold nights produce fruit known for its distinct sweetness.

Jensen Farms was located about 90 miles east of Rocky Ford, but the Jensens used the Rocky Ford name and sales dropped across the region. Later, Rocky Ford farmers patented the Rocky Ford name, hired a full-time food safety manager and built a central packing operation where melons are washed and rinsed.

Tammie Palmer of Colorado Springs, Colo., whose husband, Charles, became ill after eating the cantaloupe and died in July 2013, said the criminal case won't help her.

"My husband is already dead," she said. As Charles Palmer was being treated for listeria, doctors discovered cancer and he never fully recuperated from his listeria infection.

She said a just outcome would be to prevent the Jensens from farming again or having any involvement with the food industry. Palmer and her husband filed a lawsuit seeking $2 million from Jensen Farms, but it hasn't been resolved. He had more than $250,000 in medical bills.

"I was hoping everything would be settled and I could do something with my husband," she said. "But that's not going to happen."

No comments:

Post a Comment