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At sentencing, cantaloupe growers apologize for deadly listeria outbreak

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 5:23 PM EST, Tue February 4, 2014
Each year one out of every six Americans is sickened by a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here are some of the biggest foodborne illness outbreaks since 2001. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/24/health/gallery/food-safety-tips/index.html'>Click here</a> for tips on how to keep your food safe. Each year one out of every six Americans is sickened by a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here are some of the biggest foodborne illness outbreaks since 2001. Click here for tips on how to keep your food safe.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food
  • A 2011 listeriosis outbreak killed roughly three dozen people
  • The brothers apologize in court to the victims' families

(CNN) -- A pair of Colorado farmers were sentenced Tuesday to five years' probation, including six months of in-home detention, for their role in a 2011 listeriosis outbreak that killed roughly three dozen Americans who consumed infected cantaloupe, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, who grew up cultivating cantaloupes on Jensen Farms, a fixture in the dry plains of southeastern Colorado since the early 1900s, also were sentenced to 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution in connection with the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in nearly 100 years.

Each apologized in court to the victims' families.

"My most sincere apologies and deepest regrets. I hope the victims' meeting helped," Ryan Jensen said, according to CNN affiliate KMGH. "I do know that much has been gained in food safety understanding both here and outside the country because of this."

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Cause of listeria in cantaloupe discovered

Ryan Jensen also agreed to attend a substance abuse program as part of the sentence.

Experts: The outbreak was preventable

"This has been a huge tragedy. We are very, very sorry. We hope it leads to better understanding of food safety," Eric Jensen said.

Both brothers pleaded guilty last year to misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.

The prosecution recommended probation because of the cooperation of the brothers, including their willingness to meet with congressional investigators and relatives of their victims, Colorado U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement.

"No sentence of incarceration, restitution or financial penalty can undo the tragic damage done as a result of the contamination at Jensen Farms," Walsh said. "Today's sentence serves as a powerful reminder of farmers' legal and moral responsibility for ensuring their product is safe. Because of the Jensen Farms case and this prosecution, changes have been made regarding how fruit is processed and transported across the country."

Relatives of the victims expressed mixed feelings.

"Our family actually asked that they only get probation and no jail time because we never thought they proved that they were harming the food with intent to do any harm," Jeni Exley, whose father, Herb Stevens, died of listeria-related complications. "I think they're good people but I think they made some bad choices in their farming practices and I think, in the big scheme of things, this is going to put light on the food safety issues we have here in the United States."

Seven surviving family members testified about what the outbreak did to their loved ones, according to KMGH.

"I do want jail time. I'm very bitter," said Penny Hauser, who lost her husband of 45 years, Michael Hauser.

"I think if they had gotten some jail time that would have made a big difference. You can say, 'Oh, it wasn't your fault, it could have happened to anybody,' but I bought it, I cut it up and I fed it to him and now I have to live with those consequences. And I don't think Ryan and Eric Jensen understood the magnitude."

Michael Hauser died on February 21, 2012, on his 69th birthday.

Thirty-three Americans died as a result of the 2011 outbreak after consuming the infected fruit, authorities said. More than 110 other Americans across 28 states were sickened, many hospitalized, from eating the cantaloupe.

The 2011 listeriosis outbreak was the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in nearly 100 years, and the third-deadliest outbreak in U.S. history, according to health officials. It could have been prevented, according to numerous food safety experts and federal health officials.

Investigators and health experts eventually descended on Jensen Farms, near the town of Holly, and determined that the outbreak occurred because the brothers who had inherited the fourth-generation farm had changed their packing procedures, substituted in some new equipment and removed an anti-microbial wash.

The investigators said they found, among other things, a dripping, potentially contaminated condensation line allowing water to get onto the floor; water was pooling on the floor; sections of the floor had cut holes and jagged sides that were difficult to clean.

Samples taken from the pooled water were positive for the listeria that sickened people. On the rolling line where the melons moved, investigators found dirty equipment used to wash and dry the melons, and it could not be easily cleaned.

The FDA report stated that "several areas on both the washing and drying equipment appeared to be uncleanable, and dirt and product buildup was visible on some areas of the equipment, even after it had been disassembled, cleaned, and sanitized."

What's more, inspectors found that an older, secondhand washing machine designed for cleaning potatoes had been substituted to clean the melons.

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