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Families of listeria victims meeting with cantaloupe farmers

DENVER — 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 got sick or died, an attorney and one of the relatives said.

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.

Tammie Palmer, whose husband, Charles, became ill after eating the cantaloupe in 2011, said the two farmers owe her an explanation as to how contaminated food ended up on her dining table.

"There is no excuse for what happened, whether they meant to do it or not," she said.

The 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.

The Palmers, represented by attorney William Marler, filed a lawsuit against Jensen Farms seeking $2 million. The lawsuit was still pending when Charles Palmer died this year of cancer.

The meeting Tuesday is being held at the federal courthouse in Denver, and is off-the-record, which means their conversations cannot be used in court in a misdemeanor criminal case and numerous lawsuits that have yet to be settled, Marler said. All families and relatives were invited, but less than a dozen chose to attend, Marler said.

Marler said stores that sold the tainted fruit and inspectors who approved it should also be at Tuesday's meeting, but they weren't invited.

"This isn't just about the Jensens," Marler said.

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. 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.

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.