Del Monte Lawsuit Could Hurt Food Safety Efforts

We recently wrote that, in a rare move, Fresh Del Monte is suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an effort to reduce restrictions the agency placed on fruit imports in the United States this season. The lawsuit followed a Salmonella outbreak linked to Fresh Del Monte cantaloupe.

The lawsuit, said Business Week, could cause ramifications over how regulators remove contaminated food from the market and could make officials wary about advising consumers about potentially contaminated food.

“If this case is successful from an industry perspective, it will change the attitude of regulators,” said former FDA assistant commissioner David Acheson, who is now a food safety consultant. “They will obviously be more reluctant,” Acheson added, reported Business Week.

Michael Doyle, the director for the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia and an advisor to the agency on food safety issues, said the action could set a dangerous precedent, wrote Business Week. “More often than not the public health authorities and the epidemiologists are correct,” explained Doyle. “If you start putting public health officials in the crosshairs of the lawyers it’s probably going to have a major dampening effect on whether foods are recalled in time to prevent a substantial amount of illnesses,” Doyle added, according to Business Week.

Del Monte Fresh, a subsidiary of Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., is one of the U.S.’s largest cantaloupe importers. According to a recent press release, Del Monte said the agency’s action “threatens the viability of a major import source for cantaloupes,” The Packer recently reported.

In March, we wrote that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a multi-state Salmonella poisoning outbreak that was linked to tainted cantaloupe which sickened 13 people in Oregon, Washington State, California, Colorado, and Maryland. Three people required hospitalization in that outbreak, which was linked to the Salmonella Panama strain. Del Monte Fresh Produce recalled nearly 5,000 cartons of cantaloupe over concerns about Salmonella contamination. The recalled melons were distributed from a Del Monte’s farms in Asuncion Mita, Guatemala, via wholesale warehouse Costco clubs in seven western states.

The release also indicated that Del Monte Fresh accused the FDA and state health agency officials of what it described as “erroneous speculation, unsupported by scientific evidence” over allegations that the cantaloupes Del Monte imported from the Guatemalan farm were contaminated with the dangerous Salmonella pathogen. The lawsuit was filed by Del Monte Fresh on August 22 following the release of the FDA’s July 15th import alert.

Del Monte Fresh has also threatened to sue Oregon Public Health and its senior epidemiologist, William Keene, for their involvement in compiling evidence against it. “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,” said Dennis Christou, a vice president at Del Monte, reported Business Week.

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