When health investigators identified imported cantaloupes as the source of a salmonella outbreak early this year, the importer agreed to a recall. But now that company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, is trying to block additional restrictions on melon imports, setting off an unusually public battle between the produce industry and food safety regulators.
The company, which is one of the country’s largest produce marketers, says the restrictions could damage its reputation, and it has sued the Food and Drug Administration to lift them.
The effort is being cheered by many in the produce industry, who often complain about what they call overreaching by regulators and welcome a company with resources pushing back.
But advocates of safe food said that it was extremely rare for a major food company to take such a publicly aggressive stance.
They suspected Del Monte Fresh Produce was trying to bully regulators into thinking twice before pursuing recalls in the future.
Aside from suing the FDA, the company has threatened legal action against a leading state food-borne disease investigator in Oregon, where the Del Monte cantaloupes were identified as the cause of the salmonella outbreak. And it has challenged some of the basic techniques of food safety investigations, like relying on ill people’s memories of what they ate when microbiological testing does not find pathogens on food.
“This clearly looks like an attempt to intimidate state-level investigators,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “The chilling effect is real, and it could have serious implications for consumers who may be exposed to more tainted products because of delays in announcing the results of these epidemiologic investigations.”
An executive of Del Monte Fresh Produce said that its melons did not make anyone sick and that the purpose of the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland last month, was to improve food safety by pointing out flaws in the way some investigations were handled.
“It’s got to be a comprehensive and reliable investigation, and in our opinion this was neither,” said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, which is based in Coral Gables, Fla. “There’s absolutely no basis in the claim that this was done intentionally to intimidate or bully anyone.”
The company said Wednesday that it was in talks with the FDA to resolve the dispute and expected an agreement soon.
Many in the produce industry, which has been buffeted by recalls for items as diverse as spinach, peppers and papayas, are quietly rooting for the company.
“In this particular case, the FDA took on an adversary that has some ability to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to be treated this way,’” said Jim Prevor, editor in chief of Produce Business, a trade magazine.
The dispute is not related to the current recall of Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown in Colorado, which have caused a deadly listeria outbreak.
A salmonella story
The Del Monte Fresh Produce tussle began in February when people in several states began to fall ill with a rare bacterium known as salmonella Panama, which can cause severe diarrhea. Eventually, at least 20 people were sickened in 10 states.
State public health investigators soon discovered that many of the victims had eaten cantaloupe bought at Costco, the large warehouse retailer.
Using data from Costco membership cards, they found that the melons came from one farm in Guatemala, called Asuncion Mita, owned by Del Monte Fresh Produce.
The early investigation involved 13 cases of illness, and officials found that at least 12 of them had a clear link to cantaloupes from Asuncion Mita, a very high correlation.
The investigators, working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, asked Del Monte Fresh Produce for a recall, following the usual procedure. The company at first resisted but, according to its lawsuit, eventually agreed to a limited recall to prevent the FDA from issuing a broad warning about contaminated melons that could have affected the entire cantaloupe market. The recall was announced March 22.
But in mid-July the FDA issued an import alert, saying that the conditions that caused the contamination might still exist on the Asuncion Mita farm. The alert allowed inspectors to stop cantaloupes grown on the farm from entering this country.
Del Monte Fresh Produce fired back, filing its lawsuit and accusing federal and state inspectors of conducting a slipshod investigation. And it questioned the validity of the results because investigators had not found a cantaloupe contaminated with the bacteria that had made people sick.
It also wrote to the state of Oregon, saying it was considering a lawsuit against the state public health division and its senior epidemiologist, Dr. William Keene, who had helped lead the cantaloupe investigation. In addition it filed a complaint against Keene with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The state filings charged that Keene had defamed the company by identifying its melons as the cause of the outbreak.
Oregon state officials said that neither they nor Keene would discuss the legal action. The ethics commission, however, wrote to Del Monte Fresh Produce last week saying it did not have jurisdiction over the issues the company had raised. An FDA spokeswoman said the agency did not comment on pending litigation.
Public health specialists said that the evidence implicating Del Monte Fresh Produce cantaloupes was very strong.
“There’s no doubt the data are very tight,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Del Monte caused that outbreak.”
And he said that many investigations involving sickness from produce did not find contaminated food because by the time officials became aware of the outbreak, the tainted produce had been eaten or discarded.
The company’s filings include an audit report of the Guatemala farm, submitted to the FDA last month, which raises questions about the company’s practices.
The audit, done by a company hired by Del Monte Fresh Produce, found that a pipe containing raw sewage and wastewater emptied into an open ditch about 110 yards from the farm’s packing house. The ditch led into a lagoon containing additional sewage, more than 220 yards from the packing house. The audit recommended that the ditch be eliminated.
Christou said the ditch was protected by barbed wire to keep large animals from tracking the waste into fields. He said the lagoon contained chemicals to speed decomposition of the waste and was away from fields and wells. After the audit, he said, the company extended the pipe all the way to the lagoon and discontinued use of the open ditch.
Asked if having raw sewage in an open ditch near its packing house was consistent with high food safety standards, Christou said that tests on melons had found no pathogens.