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Del Monte files more legal actions due to Guatemalan melon ban

On the heels of the Aug. 22 suit it filed against the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. has filed a notice to sue Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division and one of its officials.

Like the FDA suit (See The Produce News, Del Monte sues FDA to lift melon ban, Aug. 22, 2011, page 1), the Oregon action stems from a recall action earlier this year involving Del Monte cantaloupes imported from Guatemala. In late February and early March of this year, Oregon health officials identified a number of illnesses that they associated with the pathogen Salmonella. Ultimately, OHA and its lead investigator, William Keene, directly linked the illness outbreaks to melons produced by Asuncion Mita, a Guatemalan grower-shipper that imports its cantaloupes to the United States through Del Monte Fresh Produce.

Presented with this connection, Del Monte Fresh did issue a voluntary recall on March 22, 2011, of a limited number of the cantaloupes from that supplier that remained on the market. The company also launched its own investigation. In its lawsuit and in a separate ethics complaint against Dr. Keene, Del Monte asserts that there was no basis for the link between the Salmonella outbreak and cantaloupes grown by Asuncion Mita and marketed by Del Monte. It claims that neither Oregon nor the FDA conducted “a comprehensive and reliable investigation” and that the “FDA ultimately found no connection between Del Monte Fresh cantaloupes and any cases resulting from the Salmonella outbreak, including those in Oregon.” Subsequently, Del Monte says the FDA closed the recall on July 29, 2011.

In its lawsuits, Del Monte claims that both OHA and the FDA discounted a plethora of evidence that contradicted the link between the company’s cantaloupes and the Salmonella outbreak. For example, one patient denied eating cantaloupes and contracted his illness more than a week before any Del Monte cantaloupes from the farm in question were on the market. Another patient claimed to have bought his cut cantaloupe pieces from a retail chain not serviced by Del Monte.

Del Monte Vice President Dennis Christou commented on the Oregon lawsuit as well as a the formal ethics inquiry against Dr. Keene in a prepared statement that read, in part, “It is critical that when there is a potential threat to consumer safety, the source of the threat must be swiftly investigated by both the appropriate government agencies and private industry. The investigation must be comprehensive and reliable such that the public can be reasonably confident that the product recall effectively eliminates the threat to consumer safety.”

Mr. Christou said that failure to conduct such an investigation does not protect public health and can serve to “undermine public confidence and trust in the government agencies charged with safeguarding public health.” He said that responsible government agencies must be careful to protect public confidence and not inflame public fears by making statements about the safety of a particular food product or producer without sufficient evidence or without conducting a reliable investigation.

“In this case,” Mr. Christou continued, “the Public Health Division and Dr. Keene made misleading allegations regarding Del Monte Fresh’s imported cantaloupes as the source of a Salmonella outbreak earlier this year. These statements were made despite the lack of a substantive factual basis for the allegations and the failure to adequately investigate the true source of the contamination.”

In its complaint and in Mr. Chrisitou’s statement, Del Monte claims that the OHA’s Public Health Division and Dr. Keene were instrumental in causing the FDA to order a recall. A company spokesperson said that is specifically why the Oregon lawsuit and the ethics complaint were filed.