Eric and Ryan Jensen, the owners and operators of Jensen Farms, have been charged in a Colorado federal court for allegedly adulterating cantaloupe that caused a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak.

In May 2011, the brothers are alleged to have changed the cleaning system at their Colorado-based farm. As a result, the cantaloupes were not treated with a bacteria killing chlorine spray. The cantaloupes were contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacterium.

The listeria outbreak killed 33 people and sickened 147 people across 28 states. It is considered the deadliest food-borne outbreak in more than 25 years according to the Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”). U.S. Attorney John Walsh said the case serves as a tragic reminder that food processors play a critical role in ensuring food safety.

The cantaloupes were traced back to the Jensen Farms, which led to personal injury and wrongful death claims against the growers, its food safety auditor, The Primus Group, Inc. and distributor Frontera Produce, Ltd., as well as several retailers and related companies.

The Jensen brothers’ installation of a new cleaning system included a catch pan to clean the cantaloupe with chlorine spray, however, the spray was not used. The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and CDC determined the brothers failed to adequately wash their cantaloupe and were aware that the bacteria could contaminate the cantaloupe if not sufficiently washed.

Patrick Holland, Special Agent in Charge of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations stated, “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.”

If convicted on the six counts of adulteration of food, and aiding and abetting, the brothers face up to one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

This should serve as a reminder to food manufacturers, and those within the supply chain, that the FDA will aggressively pursue criminal charges if warranted.