By Robert Boczkiewicz
DENVER (Reuters) - Two Colorado farmers whose listeria-contaminated cantaloupes killed 33 people pleaded guilty on Tuesday to federal criminal charges stemming from one of the deadliest outbreaks of food-borne illness in the United States.
U.S. prosecutors last month charged brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, former owners of Colorado-based Jensen Farms, with six counts each of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce tied to shipping tainted melons to markets in 2011.
In May 2011, the Jensens began washing the farm's cantaloupes with devices used to clean potatoes and failed to use a chlorine spray feature that kills deadly bacteria, prosecutors said.
Both men pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Denver to six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting. Each faces not more than one year in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000 per count.
The brothers initially pleaded not guilty to the charges, but later agreed to change their plea in a deal with prosecutors.
"The defendants have now admitted that they failed to protect the public from deadly bacteria on their cantaloupe, in violation of the law and critical FDA requirements," U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement.
"Their actions resulted in tragedy nationwide, and profound economic consequences for an entire industry, and has exposed them to these serious criminal consequences."
Forrest Lewis, attorney for Eric Jensen, said the brothers thought the cleaning operation they used "was safe and inspected and adequate."
In addition to the deaths, the listeria outbreak linked to the farm in the southeastern corner of Colorado led 147 people across 28 states to be hospitalized, authorities said. One woman suffered a miscarriage.
The Jensens filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and suspended farming operations amid a raft of lawsuits by people who were sickened or whose family members died from listeria infections connected to the tainted cantaloupes.
The elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at highest risk for listeria, whose symptoms include fever and gastrointestinal distress and which is the third leading cause of death in food-borne illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a lawsuit filed last week, the Jensens blamed a California-based food safety audit firm, Primus Group Inc, that approved the cleaning operation. The Jensens, who have said they were saddened by the outbreak, said they will donate to the victims any money they recover from the lawsuit. The brothers are due to be sentenced in January.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Andre Grenon)