Colo. Farmers Arrested In Fatal Listeria Outbreak

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The owners of a Colorado cantaloupe farm who face charges stemming from a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people have been released from custody.

They appeared in U.S. District Court in Denver Thursday afternoon. They heard their charges and their attorney entered a not guilty plea on their behalf. Their trial date is set for December 2, 2013. Eric and Ryan Jensen were also released on a $100,000 unsecured bond.

Federal prosecutors say brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen were arrested Thursday on charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The Department of Justice says the brothers turned themselves in to the U.S. Marshals in Denver.

Prosecutors say the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control determined that the Jensen's didn't adequately clean the cantaloupe.

According to the Department of Justice, the brothers allegedly changed their cantaloupe cleaning system in May of 2011, shortly before the outbreak. The system was meant for potatoes, but had a spray attached to it for fruit. The spray, the DOJ says, was never used. The DOJ says the brothers were aware that the cantaloupe could become contaminated with bacteria if not cleaned properly, and that the chlorine spray on their new cleaning system would have greatly reduced the risk of contamination.

The Listeria outbreak in 2011 spread to 28 states. Along with 33 deaths, it resulted in 147 hospitalizations.

The Rocky Ford Growers Association commented on the case, "This entire event is a tragedy for the families who lost loved ones and those who are still suffering,” said RFGA President Michael Hirakata.

“If there is any good to come from this situation, it’s that it has led to a laser-like focus on enhancing safety procedures in the Rocky Ford growing area. In fact last month, Hirakata Farms passed the most stringent Global Food Safety Audit with a 99.44% rating. This independent audit consists of 400 points of inspection.”

“Safety is the most serious concern of the Rocky Ford Growers Association,” said Hirakata. “Our families eat the same food from our fields as the Colorado families that buy our produce in stores and farmers’ markets. We are proud that our 126-year spotless safety record remains intact.”

The Jensens' attorney didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

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