Listeria victims’ families meet farmers responsible for tainted cantaloupe

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DENVER -- It’s happened only twice before in the history of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.

Victims and families of a listeria outbreak meet in private—with the two farmers who grew contaminated cantaloupe that killed 33 people and hospitalized 147 around the country.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office convened the meeting of about 25 people.

The two sides have known about each other for more than two years—but they met for the first time Tuesday.

The Jensen brothers, Ryan and Eric, and the listeria victims and families, together in one room to say the things to each other they’ve long wanted.

“It was hard on everybody that was there. I’m glad that people came. It was nice to be in a community of people that had something similar happen to them,” says Jeni Exley, daughter of Herb Stevens, who died from complications from the bacteria.

The Jensen’s pleaded guilty to introducing the poisonous produce into the food chain.

“It gives the chance to put a face on the Jensen brothers. I don’t think they meant to do anything deliberately wrong. But they had followed some procedures that just weren’t quite right,” say Stevens' wife, Elaine.

“I think they were led astray, in their hearts they know they did something wrong,” says Exley.

But she also thinks others did something wrong—the auditor who gave the brothers' fruit a clean bill of health—as well as the stores that sold it.

It was a time to share their questions, their frustration and their pain.

“We have not done something this unique,” says Jeff Dorshner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Only twice before have victims had this opportunity. The cases involved medical workers infecting or the risk of infecting patients through dirty syringes. Those workers were Kristin Parker and Ashton Daigle.

“It’s lose, lose for everybody. I feel sorry for the Jensen’s. I feel for everybody in the victims' meeting,” says Exley.

But they hope eventually it leads to a win for food safety.

“I think farms already are being more careful in the things they’re using. I think it will help,” says Stevens.

The Jensen brothers told the group they were told their modified equipment, which was used to clean potatoes, was fine for cleaning cantaloupe.

They pleaded guilty in October to charges related to the tainted cantaloupe. They’ll be sentenced in January.