Wal-Mart settles with families over listeria-tainted cantaloupes

DENVER Wed May 14, 2014 5:33pm EDT

A man stands on a skateboard outside a Wal-Mart store in Williston, North Dakota March 13, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

A man stands on a skateboard outside a Wal-Mart store in Williston, North Dakota March 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

DENVER (Reuters) - Wal-Mart has settled lawsuits with the families of 23 people who died from a 2011 listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupe grown at a Colorado farm and sold by the retailer, both sides said on Wednesday.

Thirty-three people died and 147 others across 28 states became sick after eating the tainted melons in one of the deadliest U.S. outbreaks of food-borne illness.

The attorney for the families, Bill Marler, said the settlement was a "piece of the puzzle" to hold accountable all parties in the food supply chain who allowed the adulterated fruit to go to market. Terms of the settlement are confidential.

"Both Wal-Mart and my clients are pleased to get this behind us," Marler said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove said all the tainted fruit was removed from its stores as soon as the chain became aware of the outbreak.

"We are committed to our customers' safety and we take food safety concerns like this very seriously," he said, adding the company was pleased with the resolution.

The cantaloupes were traced to now-bankrupt Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado. Federal food inspectors concluded that equipment at the farm inadequately washed the fruit to remove listeria bacterium.

The former owners of the farm, Eric and Ryan Jensen, pleaded guilty last year in Denver federal court to six counts of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting.

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.

Marler said lawsuits were also pending against other grocery chains that sold the cantaloupes, a food broker, and an auditing company that gave the Jensen's farming operation a superior rating shortly before the outbreak.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)