Del Monte Fresh Produce says it will file another lawsuit over the March recall of its imported cantaloupes, this one against the Oregon Public Health Division and its senior epidemiologist.
The second complaint follows one filed Aug. 22 in which the Coral Gables, FL-based company demanded that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lift an import alert that essentially bars cantaloupe grown at its Asuncion Mita farm in Guatemala from entering the U.S.
The produce giant alleges there is no basis for the import ban, nor was there reason for its own recall of cantaloupes implicated in an outbreak of Salmonella earlier this year.
In its latest news release, the produce giant said it notified Oregon officials on Friday of its intent to sue, claiming that the state’s public health authority and one of its officials made “misleading allegations” regarding Del Monte Fresh Produce’s Asuncion Mita cantaloupes as the likely source of a cluster of illnesses.
Del Monte voluntarily recalled the Guatemalan cantaloupes on March 22, after it was notified of an epidemiologic link between the melons and several cases of Salmonella Panama infection. Public health officials in Oregon, Washington and Maryland, among other states, were involved in making that connection between their case patients and what likely made them sick.
Twelve of 16 ill people had reported eating cantaloupe in the week before they became ill, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the outbreak investigation. Eleven of those 12 people had purchased cantaloupes from eight different Costco stores and traceback information indicated the melons were from a single farm — Asuncion Mita in Guatemala.
The Oregon official who helped conduct that investigation wasn’t identified in the release, but a Del Monte Fresh Produce executive confirmed to the Packer that it is Dr. William Keene, one of the most highly regarded epidemiologists in the country.
“The Notice to Sue alerts the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division of its conduct and misleading allegations regarding Del Monte Fresh’s imported cantaloupes as the source of a Salmonella outbreak earlier this year despite the lack of sufficient factual basis,” Del Monte officials said in their news release.
Blaming Del Monte Fresh Produce cantaloupe for the outbreak of Salmonella Panama was based on speculation, the company claims. It characterized the investigation as “apparently cursory.”
Eventually at least 20 people, including three who were hospitalized, were reported to be infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella linked to cantaloupes, according to the CDC. The case patients were from Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.
Although Del Monte Fresh Produce maintains that the FDA investigation “ultimately found no connection between its cantaloupes and any cases of Salmonella Panama, including in Oregon,” the federal agency imposed an import alert on the melons on July 15. The import alert requires the company to show that its product is safe.
In its complaint against the FDA, Del Monte Fresh Produce said tests of sample cantaloupes from the Guatemalan farm were negative in April for Salmonella. But Del Monte Fresh Produce had announced the recall in March, after the suspect melons had passed their shelf-life date. It is not clear whether any of the cantaloupes tested were actually the suspect melons. In foodborne illness investigations, samples of the food from the same batch eaten may no longer available by the time the connection to an outbreak is made. Epidemiology, rather than a contaminated sample, is the evidence that points to a likely source.
Seattle-based Marler Clark, the law firm that sponsors Food Safety News, has filed suit against Del Monte Fresh Produce on behalf of clients who were sickened in the outbreak of Salmonella Panama linked to cantaloupes.