Del Monte, F.D.A. in fight over cantaloupe imports

by Eric Schroeder
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WASHINGTON — Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., Inc. filed suit Aug. 22 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland against the Food and Drug Administration seeking an injunction that would lift an F.D.A. rule restricting the importation of the Coral Gables, Fla.-based company’s Guatemalan cantaloupes into the United States. The import ban affects almost a third of the cantaloupes that Del Monte imports into the United States.

In February and March, officials at the F.D.A. and other federal and state government agencies identified a number of illnesses that they associated with infections by the pathogen salmonella. At that time, the officials concluded the illnesses were linked to consumption of cantaloupes, and ultimately determined that the likely source of contamination were cantaloupes imported by Del Monte from Productos Agricolas de Oriente, S.A.’s farm in Asuncion Mita, Guatemala.

But according to Del Monte, which is one the largest importer of cantaloupes into the United States, the conclusion “was not rationally supported by the evidence available to F.D.A.” Del Monte also said the F.D.A. did not adequately take into account evidence that did not support that conclusion.

“Del Monte Fresh Produce places the highest priority on food safety and protecting customers,” said Dennis Christou, vice-president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh. “We require all of our suppliers to comply with all F.D.A. recommended food safety procedures, including the F.D.A.’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, as well as the F.D.A.’s Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures. The farm and packing facility at issue in this case was in full compliance with these food safety procedures. The restrictions imposed by the F.D.A. on Del Monte Fresh Produce’s ability to import cantaloupes are unnecessary and not supported by the facts.”

Del Monte in the Aug. 22 filing said it retained outside experts to conduct analysis of the food safety procedures where the allegedly contaminated cantaloupes were harvested, and in its packinghouse handling process. The audit, conducted in early April, confirmed the operations met or exceeded current guidelines required to maintain a high level of food safety and regulatory compliance, the company said. But the F.D.A. has stated that the import alert currently in place will remain so until Del Monte provides the F.D.A. with information demonstrating that the entries are “negative” for salmonella and other pathogens.

In its Aug. 22 filing with the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Del Monte urged the court to issue a declaratory judgment holding that the F.D.A.’s actions restricting importation “are unlawful, set aside the actions, and issue a permanent injunction prohibiting F.D.A. from enforcing or effectuating them in the future.”

On Aug. 29, Del Monte Fresh Produce filed a notice to sue Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division and one of its officials for its conduct and misleading allegations regarding Del Monte Fresh’s imported cantaloupes as the source of the salmonella outbreak earlier this year.

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