DENVER - A pair of brothers whose southeastern Colorado farm was tied to one of the worst foodborne illness outbreaks in the country's history switched their pleas from not guilty to guilty on Tuesday. The move opens Eric and Ryan Jensen up to the possibility of federal prison time come January when they are sentenced.
Last month, federal prosecutors charged Eric and Ryan Jensen with six counts of introducing an adulterated food product into interstate commerce. The six counts represent the six shipments of cantaloupes that went out from Jensen Farms between July 29, 2011 and August 26, 2011.
Federal investigators did not believe the Jensens intentionally allowed their cantaloupes to become infected with listeria, but said the two contributed to the problem by failing to adequately clean a conveyor system originally designed for potatoes as well as failing to install a chlorine sprayer which could have sufficiently disinfected the cantaloupe.
"Eric's children ate this cantaloupe. Their friends ate this cantaloupe," said defense attorney Forrest Lewis. "We don't truly know what happened."
The Centers for Disease Control reports at least 33 people died as a result of eating Jensen Farms cantaloupe and more than 140 people were sickened. The farm, now bankrupt, was run out of Grenada, Colorado.
Jeni Exley's father, Herb Stevens, was one of the 33 to die.
"Yes, simply eating cantaloupe killed my father," she told 9News on Tuesday. "I don't think [the Jensen brothers] are bad people. I think they used bad practices and bad judgment. I think at least they took some responsibility by pleading guilty to all six counts. It's never going to bring my father back or any other victims back, but at least it's a start."
Eric and Ryan Jensen technically face up to six years in prison when they are sentenced on January 28, 2014, but federal sentencing guidelines make a 4-10 month sentence much more likely.
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