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Listeria victims' families meeting with farmers

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November 19, 2013 12:56 PM EST | AP

DENVER (AP) — Two Colorado cantaloupe farmers who pleaded guilty to charges related to a deadly listeria outbreak are meeting Tuesday with some of the family members of people who died, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department in Denver said.

Jeffrey Dorschner said Tuesday in an email that the meeting will be private and held at an undisclosed location.

The meeting with Eric and Ryan Jensen, the two brothers who owned and operated Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., is part of an agreement with prosecutors.

Eric Jensen refused to comment when reached by phone on Tuesday.

Eric and Ryan Jensen pleaded guilty to six misdemeanor counts of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.

A statement from the Jensens' attorneys after the guilty pleas said 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 2011 listeria outbreak traced to tainted fruit from the farm caused 33 deaths and sent scores of people to hospitals. Officials have said people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit and 147 were hospitalized.

An attorney for the two farmers also agreed to donate any money they may collect from a related lawsuit over auditing inspections to victims and their families.

Both brothers acknowledged in court that they had processed and shipped tainted cantaloupe in July and August of 2011.

"We were in charge of the operation," Eric Jensen said.

The federal charges carry penalties of up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. A sentencing hearing has been set for Jan. 28. Lewis said in court that the brothers have no criminal record.

The Food and Drug Administration has said the rare move to charge the Jensens was intended to send a message to food producers in the wake of the deadliest case of foodborne illness in the nation in a quarter century.

The brothers have sued PrimusLabs, a Santa Maria, Calif., food safety auditor that checked Jensen Farms in July of 2011.

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 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."

A spokesman for PrumusLabs did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.