Statement of CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal

August 31, 2011

Most responsible food companies would be horrified to learn that customers who purchased their products became sickened with Salmonella. But after 20 people in 10 states fell ill after purchasing Del Monte cantaloupes traced back to one particular farm in Guatemala, Del Monte is instead lashing out against the Food and Drug Administration and food safety officials in Oregon. Rather than redoubling its efforts to prevent contamination, Del Monte filed a lawsuit to prevent the FDA from exercising its responsibility to protect the public’s health.

Though the law sensibly allows FDA to take action to prevent the importation of food when the food “appears from the examination of such samples or otherwise” to be adulterated or misbranded, Del Monte’s suit seeks to defend its right to sell potentially contaminated food unless FDA has a “smoking gun” test result.

Proving that a specific food carries the pathogen strain involved in an outbreak often can’t be done. Backtracking to find the exact food consumed weeks earlier is challenging, and even when products are located, they are often not uniformly contaminated so even a negative test result won’t clear a suspect product. And the law is clear that such a finding is not required.

While no one wants FDA to act precipitously, it is vital that FDA and states act on the basis of epidemiologic links to foods purchased and consumed by the affected consumers. After all, contaminated food can be a life or death matter. FDA and Oregon used state-of-the-art techniques to identify the food item, and a lawsuit like Del Monte’s could have a dangerous chilling effect on the willingness of public health officials to recall foods or ban unsafe imports for fear of retaliation in court.

Consumers should be outraged that Del Monte is using the courts to fight for its right to sell food that might be tainted. Worse yet, if Del Monte is successful, it could delay needed recalls and expose consumers to even more tainted imported products.