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Del Monte suit says FDA botched cantaloupe salmonella probe

Del Monte says officials weren't thorough in their investigation of an outbreak blamed on its imported melons. It wants an alert lifted.

September 02, 2011|By P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

Del Monte Fresh Produce has filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration, claiming it and public health officials weren't thorough in their investigation of a salmonella outbreak blamed on the Florida company's imported cantaloupes.

The company is also threatening to sue the Oregon Public Health Division and William Keene, the state agency's senior epidemiologist, for their roles in collecting data and working with federal officials to help track down the source of the outbreak.

In March, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA found that cantaloupes from a Guatemala farm were connected to 12 cases of salmonella poisoning. The FDA later concluded that the cantaloupes were imported into the U.S. by Del Monte. As of June, 20 people had fallen ill from the outbreak of Salmonella Panama, including two people in California, according to the CDC.

In July, the FDA, concerned about contaminated fruit getting into the U.S. food system, issued an alert blocking the import of cantaloupes from Guatemala.

That cut off about 27% of the cantaloupe supply Del Monte imports into the U.S., according to the suit the company filed last week against the FDA in a Maryland federal court.

Del Monte claims in the suit that there was no physical sample that proved the Guatemalan cantaloupes were to blame, and the company asks that the alert be lifted.

The FDA could not be reached for comment Friday, nor could officials from Del Monte. Oregon public health officials declined to comment.

In many cases of food-borne illness, it can be difficult to find food samples, said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety litigation and is critical of Del Monte's complaint. Indeed, in the monthlong period in which public health officials were trying to trace the source of the illness, the public probably consumed the evidence.

The CDC had reported that eight of the people who got sick had eaten cantaloupes purchased from the same unnamed warehouse club. Agency officials said they used data drawn from membership card records, in part, to figure out that the cantaloupes had come from the same Guatemalan farm.

The melon recall was relatively small compared with some of the other food contaminations that have occurred in recent months, including strawberries with E. coli that killed one person in Oregon and salmonella-tainted ground turkey products that killed one person in California and made more than 100 people ill nationwide.

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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