March 1, 2024

Del Monte Fresh Produce in Dispute Over Melon Safety

When health investigators identified imported cantaloupes as the source of a salmonella outbreak early this year, the importer agreed to a recall. But now that company, Del Monte Fresh Produce, is trying to block additional restrictions on melon imports, setting off an unusually public battle between the produce industry and food safety regulators.

The company, which is one of the country’s largest produce marketers, says the restrictions could damage its reputation, and it has sued the Food and Drug Administration to lift them.

The effort is being cheered by many in the produce industry, who often complain about what they call overreaching by regulators and welcome a company with resources pushing back.

But advocates of safe food said that it was extremely rare for a major food company to take such a publicly aggressive stance, and that they suspected Del Monte Fresh Produce was trying to bully regulators into thinking twice before pursuing recalls in the future.

Aside from suing the F.D.A., the company has threatened legal action against a leading state food-borne disease investigator in Oregon, where the Del Monte cantaloupes were identified as the cause of the salmonella outbreak. And it has challenged some of the basic techniques of food safety investigations, like relying on ill people’s memories of what they ate when microbiological testing does not find pathogens on food.

“This clearly looks like an attempt to intimidate state level investigators,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “The chilling effect is real, and it could have serious implications for consumers who may be exposed to more tainted products because of delays in announcing the results of these epidemiologic investigations.”

An executive of Del Monte Fresh Produce said that its melons did not make anyone sick and that the purpose of the lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Maryland last month, was to improve food safety by pointing out flaws in the way some investigations were handled.

“It’s got to be a comprehensive and reliable investigation, and in our opinion this was neither,” said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, which is based in Coral Gables, Fla. “There’s absolutely no basis in the claim that this was done intentionally to intimidate or bully anyone.”

The company said Wednesday that it was in talks with the F.D.A. to resolve the dispute and expected an agreement soon.

Many in the produce industry, which has been buffeted by recalls for items as diverse as spinach, peppers and papayas, are quietly rooting for the company. “In this particular case, the F.D.A. took on an adversary that has some ability to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to be treated this way,’ ” said Jim Prevor, editor in chief of Produce Business, a trade magazine.

The dispute is not related to the current recall of Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown in Colorado, which have caused a deadly listeria outbreak.

The Del Monte Fresh Produce tussle began in February when people in several states began to fall ill with a rare bacterium known as salmonella Panama, which can cause severe diarrhea. Eventually, at least 20 people were sickened in 10 states.

State public health investigators soon discovered that many of the victims had eaten cantaloupe bought at Costco, the large warehouse retailer.

Using data from Costco membership cards, they found that the melons came from one farm in Guatemala, called Asunción Mita, owned by Del Monte Fresh Produce.

The early investigation involved 13 cases of illness, and officials found that at least 12 of them had a clear link to cantaloupes from Asunción Mita, a very high correlation.

The investigators, working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the F.D.A., asked Del Monte Fresh Produce for a recall, following the usual procedure. The company at first resisted but, according to its lawsuit, eventually agreed to a limited recall to prevent the F.D.A. from issuing a broad warning about contaminated melons that could have affected the entire cantaloupe market. The recall was announced on March 22.

But in mid-July the F.D.A. issued an import alert, saying that the conditions that caused the contamination might still exist on the Asunción Mita farm. The alert allowed inspectors to stop cantaloupes grown on the farm from entering this country.

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