A complaint lodged by Del Monte Fresh Produce against an Oregon Public Health epidemiologist has been dismissed by the state’s Government Ethics Commission.
The Oregonian’s Lynne Terry reported Monday that the commission considers allegations of misuse of public office for personal gain, so the produce company’s criticism of senior epidemiologist William Keene’s scientific judgment fell outside the ethics panel’s mandate.
Keene was one of several state and federal investigators who found an epidemiological link between an outbreak of Salmonella Panama that sickened at least 20 people in 10 states and cantaloupes imported by Del Monte Fresh Produce from a Guatamalan farm.
The Florida-based company voluntarily recalled nearly 5,000 cartons of cantaloupes in March, but then faced an import alert imposed by the Food and Drug Administration in July requiring proof that the farm’s melons are safe before shipments to the U.S. can resume. Del Monte Fresh Produce has filed suit against the FDA to lift that import restriction.
In addition to lodging its ethics complaint, Del Monte Fresh Produce also threatened to sue Oregon Health Authority for its part in the multistate investigation. The company alleged that the epidemiologic evidence implicating its cantaloupes as the source of infection was “a clear error of judgment.”
No samples were found that tested positive for the outbreak pathogen, although that is common in foodborne illness investigations when the implicated food is perishable, and therefore long gone by the time health authorities’ interviews with case patients and product tracebacks have established an association.
Terry reported that the produce company has not yet filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon. Because it has notified the state of its intent to sue, it has two years to do so.
Food safety advocates have criticized Del Monte Fresh Produce attorneys for targeting Keene, a respected veteran epidemiologist who has played a key role in finding the source of some of the country’s most serious outbreaks. Some said the produce company’s actions were reminiscent of the lawsuits and legal maneuvers the tobacco industry once employed in attempts to intimidate public health experts.