Updated: October 22, 2013 12:53PM
DENVER — Two Colorado farmers whose cantaloupes were tied to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people pleaded guilty on Tuesday to misdemeanor charges under a deal with federal prosecutors.
Eric and Ryan Jensen entered the pleas in federal court in Denver to six counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
“These young men are stepping up because it happened on their watch,” Forrest Lewis, a lawyer for Eric Jensen, said in court.
A sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 28. The deal didn’t address the brothers’ possible punishment.
However, if convicted of all the charges, each could have faced up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. The Jensens previously filed for bankruptcy,
Officials have said people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit and 147 were hospitalized.
A statement from the Jensens’ attorneys says 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.
The brothers have sued the safety auditor who gave their farm a “superior” rating just before the outbreak — the nation’s deadliest case of foodborne illness in a quarter century.
The Jensens were charged with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. At the time, the Food and Drug Administration said the rare move was intended to send a message to food producers.
Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but the FDA under President Barack Obama has been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses.
Federal investigators said the melons at Jensen Farms in southeast Colorado likely were contaminated in its packing house because of dirty water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment.
The Jensens filed their lawsuit against PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, Calif., food safety auditor that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011.
The Jensens argued that they asked the auditor about a new processing system, which removed a step of rinsing the melons with chlorinated water. The lawsuit states the PrimusLabs auditor “did not warn Jensen that the new system created a hazard or a risk of contamination.”
The company could not be immediately reached for comment.