Watching a star twinkle in the night sky is the closest we'll probably ever get to time travel. The light that pokes out of the darkness, by the time it reaches us, is millions of years old. The star that's being viewed is so old, in fact -- how old is it?! -- that there's a good chance what we're looking at isn't even there anymore, long cracked apart by gravitational forces and swallowed back into the universe.
This time-shifting world of star-gazing is similar to how disease outbreak control works. The scientists in the labs aren't watching in real-time. They're picking up clues, trying to piece together a larger narrative that's already played out. By the time the outbreak is defined as an actual outbreak, it may already be over. (It's a lot like studying economic conditions in that way; economists only know a recession's happening long after it started.) Disease outbreak science, therefore, is not about prevention so much as containment. Once an outbreak's confirmed, the role of an investigator is to trace it back to its original source so that others can avoid the same fate.
And, of course, figure out who to punish.
So, while the first official warning about a deadly listeria outbreak didn't come from the Center for Disease Control until September 28th, 2011, by that point they'd already traced the contamination to a tainted package of cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, a small farm based in Holly, Colorado. (A peek through their long-dormant Facebook page shows an operation not unlike anything you'd see at your local farmers' market.) But by the time the final tally of the outbreak was released, the name would become almost as despised and notorious as "Heisenberg." (The fictional one, that is; poor Werner.)
33 people dead. 146 illnesses confirmed. 19 states infected. The worst food borne illness in U.S. history. (Since the CDC started keeping records in the '70s, that is.)
When dealing with numbers like that, it's only a matter of time before prosecutors find someone to blame. Which brings about a sense of closure and justice now that charges have finally been filed:
Eric Jensen, 37, and Ryan Jensen, 33, could face up to six years in prison and up to $1.5 million in fines each if convicted of all counts against them, prosecutors said.
The charges include six misdemeanor counts for "introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce." (Also worth noting: The charges reveal that the 33-person death tally so often cited in this outbreak may be low, as "ten additional deaths not attributed to listeriosis occurred among persons who had been infected by eating outbreak-related cantaloupe.")
The two brothers are addressed in the suit not necessarily because they tampered with the cantaloupes themselves -- in fact, as their lawyer made clear, the charges don't specifically say they were directly responsible for the contamination, or should have known about it before the product was shipped -- but because of the farm's faulty equipment and excessive amounts of dirty water on the shipping floor. That, the FDA says, is the reason the outbreak occurred in the first place. And with blame needing to be placed somewhere, the buck stops at the owners:
"As this case so tragically reminds us, food processors play a critical role in ensuring that our food is safe," U.S. Atty. John Walsh said in a statement. "They bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public. Where they fail to live up to that responsibility, and as these charges demonstrate, this office and the Food and Drug Administration have a responsibility to act forcefully to enforce the law."
What makes this case so interesting is the fact that it's so rare. Only four other similar cases have occurred in the past decade, despite the fact that there have been, well, let's just say a whole lot more than four cases of food poisoning over the same timespan. The extreme nature of the 2011 listeria outbreak is clearly one of the main reasons for it to be targeted by federal prosecutors ... which almost makes me hesitate rather than rejoice.
See: The act of negligence by the Jensens was bad. Of course. But it's at least as terrible as the June 2011 case of listeria contamination wherein Del Monte imported tainted cantaloupes from Guatemala. That contamination was due to a raw sewage pipe being emptied into a ditch about a football field's length away from the packing house. But in that case, the only penalty handed down to Del Monte was simply a few restrictions on what they could import into the country. (Restrictions that were quickly lifted by the FDA.) And that was that.
The big difference between the Del Monte case and Jensen Farms? Only eight people got sick from the raw sewage-tainted cantaloupes. Del Monte lucked out, in other words.
The criminal charges brought against Jensen Farms is more about "eye for an eye" justice than actually punishing the offending deed. Which isn't all that surprising; this is the way it works in any legal proceeding. The final tally of damage is the main factor in determining what compensation should be made. But maybe that brand of thinking needs to be altered when dealing with our food safety. Maybe the punishment needs to reflect not only the damage, but the crime itself. Maybe these charges shouldn't be reserved for extreme death totals, but the norm for most food contaminators.
Or maybe -- if you're a glass-half-full kind of person -- these charges are simply the first shot-across-the-bow by a newly empowered FDA. Only time will tell.
Want recipes and food news emailed directly to you? Sign up for the new Food newsletter here!