The U.S. attorney’s office in Colorado is investigating the deadly 2011 listeria outbreak traced to a cantaloupe grower and processor in the state, according to a lawyer for victims.
Attorney Bill Marler said a criminal investigation was unusual in outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
The outbreak caused by the contaminated fruit killed at least 30 people, including an elderly Nebraskan, sickened another 146, including at least six Nebraskans, and was the deadliest in almost 90 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A congressional investigation found the incident may have been avoided if the processor, Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo., had followed U.S. food safety guidelines.
“The investigators were here three weeks ago, and we turned over all the files on death cases to them,” said Marler, a Seattle lawyer at Marler Clark LLP who represents 42 victims of the outbreak, including the families of about 20 people who died. “It’s an ongoing investigation.”
Among those Marler represents is the family of George Drinkwater, 81, of Cody, Neb., who died in September from illness caused by the melons.
It was one of the deadliest food poisoning outbreaks in U.S. history and wrecked the reputation of Rocky Ford melons, a standard in the food industry for generations.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, declined to comment about the reported criminal investigation. James Markus, a lawyer in Denver representing Jensen Farms, didn’t return a call seeking comment on the probe.
Jensen Farms in July filed for bankruptcy in Denver, and settlement talks are under way in lawsuits involving victims of the outbreak against the processors, Marler said.