The two Colorado farmers responsible for the Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes that killed 33 people pleaded guilty on Tuesday to federal criminal charges stemming from the deadly Listeria outbreak.
The Jensen brothers, former owners of Colorado-based Jensen Farms, were each charged with six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce tied to the tainted melons they shipped to markets, Reuters reports. Prosecutors say the pair washed melons with a system used to clean potatoes but did not use a chlorine spray that kills deadly bacteria.
In addition to the deaths in the 2011 outbreak, 147 people in 28 states were hospitalized and one woman suffered a miscarriage, according to Reuters. This is one of the deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States.
The Listeria pathogen is unique because it not only thrives in colder temperatures, such as those in refrigerated environments, but also tolerates heat and dry temperatures, making it a challenge to eliminate. Listeria has an unusually long incubation period—up to 70 days—leading to lengthy time frames for illnesses to occur.
Listeriosis, the disease caused by the Listeria pathogen, can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms include high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Listeriosis can kill fetuses, prompt premature births, and can lead to hearing loss or brain damage in newborns and neurological effects and cardio-respiratory failure in adults. Listeria outbreaks were also reported in 2012 and 2013, with the pathogen traced to contaminated cheeses and appetizer spreads.
The Jensens, who initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and suspended farming after a number of lawsuits were filed by people sickened or whose family members died from Listeria infections, according to Reuters. The Jensens themselves filed a lawsuit against a food safety audit firm they say approved the cleaning operation.