DENVER (AP) — Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers who pleaded guilty to charges related to a deadly listeria outbreak have agreed to meet with family members of people who died and to donate any money they may collect from a related lawsuit to victims and their families, a lawyer said Tuesday.
The comments by defense attorney Forrest Lewis came in federal court in Denver as Eric and Ryan Jensen entered their pleas to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
The 2011 listeria outbreak traced to the tainted fruit caused 33 deaths and sent scores of people to hospitals.
"This is a complex case and there's a lot to be explained," Lewis said while discussing the pleas. "These young men are stepping up because it happened on their watch."
A statement from the Jensens' attorneys says the brothers were shocked and saddened by the deaths, but the guilty pleas do not imply any intentional wrongdoing or knowledge that the cantaloupes were contaminated.
Both brothers acknowledged in court that they had processed and shipped tainted cantaloupe in July and August of 2011.
"We were in charge of the operation," Eric Jensen said.
The federal charges carry penalties of up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. A sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 28. Lewis said in court that the brothers have no criminal record.
The Food and Drug Administration has said the rare move to charge the Jensens was intended to send a message to food producers in the wake of the deadliest case of foodborne illness in the nation in a quarter century.
Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but under President Barack Obama the FDA has been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses.
The actions of the Jensens "resulted in tragedy nationwide and profound economic consequences for an entire industry, and has exposed them to these serious criminal consequences," U.S. Attorney John Walsh said after the pleas.
Officials have said people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit and 147 were hospitalized.
The brothers have sued PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, Calif., food safety auditor that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011. Lewis acknowledged that his clients have declared bankruptcy but still intend to give any money gained from that lawsuit to victims and families.
Federal investigators said the melons at Jensen Farms in southeast Colorado likely were contaminated in its packing house because of dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment.
The Jensens argued that they asked the auditor about a new processing system, which removed a step of rinsing the melons with chlorinated water. The lawsuit states the PrimusLabs auditor "did not warn Jensen that the new system created a hazard or a risk of contamination."
No one answered the phone at a number listed for the company.