Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc. has dropped its lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ending a month-long fight over whether the food company’s cantaloupes should be banned from the U.S.
The suit was dropped Tuesday, the same day the FDA lifted an import ban on cantaloupes supplied by a facility in Asunción Mita, Guatemala. That import alert had been in place since July 15, after earlier shipments from the Guatemalan farm appeared to be contaminated with salmonella.
An FDA spokeswoman said she could not comment on whether the lifting of the import alert was related to the company’s litigation. In a statement this week, Del Monte said only that the two events represented an “amicable resolution” to the dispute.
While the suit against the FDA has been dropped, the company still has a related pending legal action against the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division and its senior epidemiologist, Dr. William E. Keene. It was in Oregon where a salmonella outbreak began earlier this year that was later linked to Asuncion Mita melons.
The company on Aug. 29 filed notice to sue Keene and the Oregon health department. It said this week that discussions on that case are ongoing.
The legal action against government health agencies and officials has been called “unprecedented” by health experts.
Former FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods David Acheson said in a September interview that the suit questions the role of epidemiology as a scientific tool to trace foodborne illness. Acheson and state health department scientists said the litigation could have a chilling effect on the process that is used to alert consumers of food-related health risks.
It was epidemiologists from several state health departments, working with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who linked Del Monte’s cantaloupes in March to an outbreak of salmonella Panama, a rare strain of salmonella.
That outbreak eventually sickened 20 people in 10 states. Keene, who played a central role in the investigation, notified the company of the link.
On March 22, the company issued a limited voluntary recall of Asunción Mita cantaloupes “because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella Panama,” it said in a press release.
Months later, on July 15, the FDA issued an import alert for Asuncion Mita cantaloupes.
The company then responded with an 84-page letter to the FDA on Aug. 15 that included the results of a third-party review of its safety practices and results showing its products tested negative for salmonella.
A week later, it filed suit against the FDA in U.S. District Court for Maryland and a week after that it filed notice to sue Keene and the Oregon department.
The company has said evidence linking its melons to the outbreak was based on “erroneous speculation” and accused the FDA of failing to investigate other potential origins of contamination, such as retailers and transporters.
Tarryn Mento and Brandon Quester are reporters for Cronkite News Service