Del Monte is suing the FDA, as reported in the Business section of today’s NY Times. The company is saying that restrictions on melon imports that are being imposed by the FDA are unfair. Del Monte is saying the melons are safe. The agency is saying they aren’t, and that they have salmonella. Produce companies and agribusiness are excited about the Del Monte move: By taking the government to court, the private sector is going to make the FDA reluctant to impose controls on food. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/22/business/del-monte-fresh-produce-resists-in-a-food-safety-case.html?ref=business
Here are the facts as reported in the NY Times: “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.”
Del Monte resisted a recall at first, then agreed, then said no to the FDA’s request to stop imports of melons from the farm. Del Monte went further. Del Monte threatened to sue the scientist who led the investigation. Again, according to the NY Times: “(Del Monte) wrote to the State of Oregon, saying it was considering a lawsuit against the state public health division and its senior epidemiologist, Dr. William E. Keene, who had helped lead the cantaloupe investigation. In addition it filed a complaint against Dr. Keene with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The state filings charged that Dr. Keene had defamed the company by identifying its melons as the cause of the outbreak.”
Scientists disagree with Del Monte. The NY Times: “There’s no doubt the data are very tight,” said Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Del Monte caused that outbreak.”
Del Monte investigated the farm, but even when they found out the following they did not take any action. From the NY Times: “(An) audit, done by a company hired by Del Monte Fresh Produce, found that a pipe containing raw sewage and wastewater emptied into an open ditch about 110 yards from the farm’s packing house. The ditch led into a lagoon containing additional sewage, more than 220 yards from the packing house. The audit recommended that the ditch be eliminated.”
Now I am as excited as you about the new daytime T.V. show, “The Chew,” but today I am thinking about those melons. The melons are the canary in the coal mine, the tip of the iceberg, foreplay, an introduction, or the first signs of dementia. If companies can intimidate regulatory agencies, it stands to reason that food borne illnesses will increase.
Here’s a quote from “The Chew,” by the way. It’s Mario Batali, quoted in The NY Times, who in one sentence disses one in every six people on the planet: “If you have garam masala in your cupboard, you probably haven’t used it since you were smoking pot in the ’80s.”