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Colorado cantaloupe farmers to plead guilty to charges over listeria outbreak

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Two Colorado farmers whose listeria-contaminated cantaloupes killed 33 people will plead guilty to federal criminal charges stemming from one of the deadliest outbreaks of food-borne illness in the United States, court documents show.

U.S. prosecutors last month charged two former owners of Colorado-based Jensen Farms, brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, with six counts each of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce tied to shipping tainted melons to out-of-state markets in 2011.

The brothers initially pleaded not guilty. But legal filings on Tuesday by attorneys for the Jensens show they have struck a deal with prosecutors and intend to plead guilty to unspecified charges at a hearing later this month in U.S. District Court in Denver.

Attorneys for the brothers on Wednesday confirmed they will plead guilty but declined to provide details of the plea agreement. Federal prosecutors were not available for comment.

"We're headed in the direction of a guilty plea," said Richard Banta, lawyer for Ryan Jensen, 33.

In May 2011, the Jensens began washing the farm's cantaloupes with devices used to clean potatoes and failed to use a chlorine spray feature that kills deadly bacteria, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement last month.

"The defendants were aware that their cantaloupes could be contaminated with harmful bacteria if not sufficiently washed," he said. "The chlorine spray, if used, would have reduced the risk of microbial contamination of the fruit."

In addition to the deaths, the listeria outbreak linked to the farm in the southeastern corner of Colorado led 147 people across 28 states to be hospitalized, authorities said. One woman suffered a miscarriage.

The Jensens filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and suspended farming operations amid a raft of lawsuits by people who were sickened or whose family members died from listeria infections connected to the tainted cantaloupes.

The elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at highest risk for listeria, whose symptoms include fever and gastrointestinal distress and which is the third leading cause of death in food-borne illnesses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Attorneys for the Jensens said in a statement last month that the brothers remained "shocked, saddened and in prayerful remembrance of the victims and their families."

The Jensens faced up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for each of the six initial charges.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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