DENVER – A Colorado cantaloupe grower whose farm was identified by federal authorities as the source of a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people last year was fined by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday for failing to provide safe migrant worker housing.
The federal agency said Eric Jensen, owner of Jensen Farms, of Holly, rented migrant workers unsanitary, overcrowded rooms at a motel he owns. Inspectors said many rooms lacked beds, laundry facilities and smoke detectors. Jensen faces $4,250 in civil penalties.
The fine was not linked to the outbreak.
"Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it's illegal," said Chad Frasier, the Wage and Hour Division's district director in Denver.
Jensen said Thursday the fine was unwarranted. He said he didn't know the people who rented the rooms for a month were migrant workers.
"It was closed at the time, and they wanted to rent it," Jensen said. He added that he didn't know he had to verify their employment status.
The epidemic of listeria in cantaloupe last fall was the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years. Thirty people died, 146 people were sickened and one woman suffered a miscarriage after eating the tainted cantaloupe, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Food and Drug Administration said in October that pools of dirty water on a packing facility floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment probably were to blame. Government investigators found several positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment in the packing facility and on fruit that had been held there. The farm also had stopped using antibacterial washes and did not "pre-cool" cantaloupes off the fields to reduce bacteria growth, the FDA said.
Jensen Farms recalled the cantaloupes in September.
Jensen faces multiple lawsuits related to the outbreak. He has refused to answer questions about the suits.