DENVER — Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers who pleaded guilty to charges related to a deadly listeria outbreak personally apologized Tuesday to some of the family members of people who got sick or died, an attorney said.
The meeting with Eric and Ryan Jensen, the two brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado, was part of an agreement with prosecutors.
The brothers apologized during what William Marler, an attorney representing victims in lawsuits against Jensen Farms, described as a sober meeting at the federal courthouse in Denver. In turn, some of the victims told the Jensens about their loved ones who fell ill, he said.
"Everybody — prosecutors, the FDA — none of us had ever had a meeting like this," Marler said. "It's a tragedy for everybody."
By agreement with prosecutors, the Jensens' statements at the meeting cannot be used against them either in their misdemeanor criminal case or in numerous civil lawsuits that are pending, Marler said.
The listeria outbreak traced to tainted fruit from the Jensens' farm caused 33 deaths and sent scores of people to hospitals. Officials have said people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit and 147 were hospitalized.
Eric and Ryan Jensen have pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. 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.
Marler said stores that sold the tainted fruit and inspectors who approved it should have also been at Tuesday's meeting, but they weren't invited.
"This isn't just about the Jensens," Marler said.
Eric Jensen refused to comment when reached by phone Tuesday.
A statement from the Jensens' attorneys after the guilty pleas said 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.