Del Monte Fresh Produce has withdrawn its threatened lawsuit against the Oregon Public Health Division and its senior epidemiologist, who with other public health officials last year  traced a multistate outbreak of Salmonella infection to cantaloupes imported from the company’s Asuncion Mita farm in Guatemala.

The news was reported by Lynne Terry of The Oregonian. She wrote that Del Monte Fresh Produce notified the state earlier this month that it would not go forward with legal action against William Keene and his department.

Del Monte Fresh Produce had announced its threat in a news release in August, claiming that “misleading allegations” had been made in naming the Guatemalan cantaloupes as the likely source of Salmonella infection that sickened at least 20 people, and sent three to the hospital. The case patients were from Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.

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.

Del Monte Fresh Produce voluntarily recalled the Guatemalan cantaloupes on March 22, 2011 after it was notified of the epidemiological link between the melons the outbreak of Salmonella Panama infection.

But when the Food and Drug Administration banned further cantaloupe imports from the company’s Guatemalan farm, Del Monte Fresh Produce sued the FDA and got it to back down on the import alert. It also claimed it was wrongly blamed for the outbreak.

Food safety experts and consumer activists predicted the case targeting Oregon Public Health — recognized for its food safety leadership — would not go far, but said they saw the complaint filed by Del Monte Fresh Produce as an attempt to intimidate public health programs across the country.

Dr. Katrina Hedberg, Oregon state epidemiologist, told The Oregonian that dealing with the tort claim had been time-consuming, so it was a relief when it was withdrawn and they could resume focusing on their job — protecting the public’s health.

The claim was unprecedented, Terry noted:

State epidemiologists investigate dozens of foodborne illness outbreaks every year and name the culprits to prevent more people from getting sick. No other company has ever filed a suit or threatened to sue Oregon over one of those investigations.

“There have been lots of outbreaks,” Hedberg said. “Why some companies choose to work with public health and others want to fight it — I can’t answer that.”

A Del Monte Fresh Produce spokesman declined to comment, telling Terry the company “does not comment on ongoing or closed investigations.”