A rare and stunning arrest was made this week by the FDA and US Attorney’s Office. Eric and Ryan Jensen, the owners of the now bankrupt Jensen Farms that was the source of contaminated cantaloupe that caused a nationwide outbreak, were arrested in Denver on charges of intentional adulteration. The indictment charges the brothers with six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. 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. If convicted, each man faces not more than one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 per charge.
Criminal charges are rare in cases of outbreaks and the cases move slowly. Investigations begin in the FDA’s civil division and only move to its Criminal division if there is evidence the contamination was intentional. FDA criminal cases take time to build. The outbreak began in the fall of 2011, but the charges were only filed this week. Criminal cases for food poisoning are also rare. Both the Salmonella outbreak of 2010 and the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak have avoided criminal charges. 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 (Listeria). The Information further states that the cantaloupe was prepared, packed and held under conditions which rendered it injurious to health. The Justice department points to several pieces of evidence it believes demonstrates a knowledge of contamination that qualifies as intentional. 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.
The trial begins in December and should shed more light on the intent and knowledge of the Jensen brothers.
Algthough criminal charges are rare this case emphasizes the value of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). Safety procedures may present an immediate short-term cost, but are the front-line in protecting your brand and avoiding civil and criminal penalties.