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Probation recommended for Colorado farmers tied to listeria outbreak

By Robert Boczkiewicz

DENVER (Reuters) - Two Colorado farmers whose listeria-contaminated cantaloupes killed 33 people in 2011 should be sentenced to five years of probation, a prosecutor told a court on Friday.

Eric and Ryan Jensen, former owners of Colorado-based Jensen Farms, pleaded guilty in October to charges stemming from one of the deadliest U.S. outbreaks of food-borne illness. They are scheduled to be sentenced on January 28 in U.S. District Court in Denver.

The men, who are brothers, pleaded guilty to six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jaime Pena said in a court filing that five years of probation would provide just punishment.

"These defendants were at worse negligent or reckless in their acts and omissions," Pena wrote in a recommendation to U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty.

Hegarty could impose a sentence of up to six years in prison and a fine of $1.5 million on each brother.

Their cantaloupes were washed and packed at a plant in Granada, Colorado. Equipment at the plant failed to wash fruit with enough anti-bacterial solutions to remove listeria bacterium, prosecutors said in court papers.

Thirty-three people died in the outbreak and another 147 people were hospitalized in 28 states.

A court officer who conducted a pre-sentencing investigation found no evidence the Jensens knew the faulty processing equipment increased the risk of contamination.

The court officer and the Jensens' defense attorney also recommended a sentence of probation.

The Jensens filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and suspended farming operations amid a raft of lawsuits.

The elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at highest risk for listeria, whose symptoms include fever and gastrointestinal distress, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Listeria is the third most common cause of death in food-borne illnesses, the CDC said.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)

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