Rumors continue to swirl around an alleged federal criminal probe being conducted by U.S. prosecutors into the deadly 2011 Listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupes sold by Colorado-based Jensen Farms, which the CDC reports killed at least 33 people and sickened nearly 150 more.
On August 13, food safety attorney Bill Marler told Bloomberg News that he had turned all his files connected with the case over to federal investigators three weeks earlier. Two days later, the nonprofit I-News Network, based in Denver, Colo., reported that it had multiple independent sources confirming a current, active criminal probe into Jensen Farms.
However, no one directly connected with the probe is talking, including the U.S. district attorney’s task force on healthcare fraud and representatives for the owners of Jensen Farms, which declared bankruptcy in May.
Even noted food safety experts and lawyers are steering clear of comment; several contacted by Food Quality declined requests for comments. Some explained that prosecutors might have a difficult time determining—and proving—whether or not Jensen Farms knowingly released contaminated products into commerce.
Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, such knowledge can lead to felony charges, with the penalties going up proportionally based on the number of people harmed. Even without that knowledge, criminal charges could still result from negligence if people in authority at the firm could have prevented the violations, but those would likely be misdemeanors, experts say.
While the I-News report seems to indicate that charges against Jensen Farms may be imminent, the criminal probe against the Peanut Corporation of America, which declared bankruptcy in 2009 after it was found to be the source of a massive 2008-2009 Salmonella outbreak that killed nine people and sickened nearly 700 in 46 states, is still ongoing more than three years later.
Meanwhile, another deadly foodborne illness outbreak has been linked to cantaloupe: Two people have died and at least 141 more have become ill after eating Salmonella-contaminated melon sold by an Indiana farm that has not yet been publicly named. Burch Farms, a North Carolina grower, has also recalled all cantaloupes and honeydew melons from this year’s crop after the FDA found Listeria monocytogenes in at least one melon in its packing facility.