By Sam Lewis
Former farm owners linked to 2011 Listeria outbreak seek damages and legal fees
Eric and Ryan Jensen, Colorado farmers and former owners of now defunct Jensen Farms, have filed a lawsuit against a food safety auditor. Their claim is that the auditor failed to notice safety problems, giving the farm a “superior” rating just one month prior to one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history.
This news comes just days after the duo arranged a hearing, scheduled for Oct 22, to change their “not guilty” plea through a deal with federal prosecutors. The Jensen brothers were charged last month with federal misdemeanors of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The suspect food — melons from the Jensen farm — are connected to the 2011 Listeria outbreak that killed 33 people and hospitalized nearly 150.
The Jensen’s new lawsuit is against Santa Maria, CA’s PrimusLabs. This was the auditor that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011, just prior to the Listeria outbreak. The auditor’s notes do not include any mention of the company’s processing system posing a risk of contamination. The Jensens are arguing that they had inquired with the auditor about a new processing system — one that removed a step of rinsing produce with chlorinated water. According to the brothers, the auditor with PrimusLabs “did not warn Jensen that the new system created a hazard or a risk of contamination.” The Jensen brothers are suing for unspecified damages along with legal fees.
The FDA states that conditions at Jensen Farms in 2011 led to the Listeria outbreak. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) traced the outbreak back to the farm, and the melons it produced. Federal investigators determined that the fruit was contaminated in the farm’s packaging facility where the culprit was dirty water, and old equipment.
The Jensen brothers each face maximum sentences including up to six years in prison and fines up to $1.5 million. The Oct 22 scheduled hearing to change their not guilty plea should lessen the sentences each Jensen could face.