Cantaloupe growers arrested after food-borne illnesses, but wider problems remain

Two owners of a cantaloupe farm in Granada in southeast Colorado have been arrested on charges tied to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and hospitalized 147 others, the Justice Department said Thursday.

Eric and Ryan Jensen were accused of allowing dirty cantaloupe — prepared, packed and held under substandard conditions — to be shipped to 28 states.

Each of the brothers could face jail time of up to a year and fines of as much as $250,000 for each of the six charges against them. An attorney representing the Jensens couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, but said in a statement to The Denver Post that the charges didn’t imply that the two men knew—or should have known—that the cantaloupes were contaminated.

But as I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS reported last year, problems laid bare by the outbreak didn’t end at Jensen Farms and its owners.

The farm sold their produce to retailers that require private auditors to ensure the safety of the food. However, it is the food producers themselves—like Jensen Farms—who pay for the auditors.

Critics of the system say auditors are unlikely to give a failing grade to those who commission their services, for fear of losing business — presenting an inherent conflict of interest. That system remains.

Before the outbreak, Jensen Farms hired California-based PrimusLabs, which contracted with Texas auditor Bio Food Safety to conduct the audit. Bio Food Safety, which has since declared bankruptcy, gave Jensen a high score.

An attorney representing PrimusLabs against civil lawsuits filed against the company was not immediately available for comment.

The Justice Department said Thursday today that Eric and Ryan Jensen installed a chlorine-spray cleaning system — intended to be used on potatoes — that was never used.

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