Food Safety Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Caroline Smith DeWaal, recently issued a statement in response to Del Monte’s current lawsuits against both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as Oregon Public Health. Del Monte filed suit against the agency after a collaborative epidemiologic investigation conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with public health officials in a number of states, including California, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington revealed that Del Monte cantaloupes were the likely source of a multistate outbreak of at least 20 Salmonella Panama infections that occurred between February and April 2011. The company claimed that because the outbreak investigation did not reveal any physical evidence of Salmonella contamination on the cantaloupes, restrictions placed on imports of Del Monte cantaloupes were unwarranted.

DeWaal explained in her statement:

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.

FDA in collaboration with the CDC and other state and local health departments conducted a thorough investigation of the outbreak and concluded that the reported Salmonella Panama infections were epidemiologically linked to Del Monte’s cantaloupes. This is often the case with many outbreaks. Health departments must act quickly in order to protect public health and sometimes that requires acting without a positive sample from the food product in question. DeWaal adds:

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.

DeWaal thinks that Del Monte’s lawsuit is a step in the wrong direction for public health. As she says, the lawsuit “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.”