Del Monte’s lawsuit targeting Oregon’s top food safety scientist could backfire and hinder future public health investigations, health investigators say.

Health officials fear Del Monte lawsuit may chill recallsCoral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc. filed the suit Aug. 26 against Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division, alleging senior epidemiologist William Keene mishandled a March investigation. The case concerned Guatemalan cantaloupes, which Oregon health officials linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 20 people in nine states.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, defends Keene’s work and called Del Monte’s suit embarrassing and spurious.

“I would be the first one to defend any company if the data were incomplete or if the investigation didn’t show an association, but this one almost reminds me of the intimidation lawsuits the tobacco industry has used in the past,” Osterholm said.

Michael Doyle, a former Food and Drug Administration advisor who heads the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, said he fears such lawsuits could limit effectiveness of public health messages to consumers.

“One of the most difficult points that epidemiologists have to make is the call as to whether a specific food is a vehicle for an outbreak,” Doyle said. “If they do this later than sooner, more people could be exposed to the implicated food and made ill. There needs to be a balance because some epidemiologists may be overly aggressive with insufficient information or pulling the trigger too fast.

“This lawsuit could do more harm than good but it might make epidemiologists more cognizant of the fact that they’re responsible for not only public health, but economic consequences,” Doyle said.

The tort filing followed another Del Monte lawsuit the week before, asking a Maryland court to order the FDA to end to an import alert restricting Guatemalan cantaloupe imports from Del Monte’s Asuncion Mita Guatemala farm.

In news reports during the February and March outbreaks, Keene was quoted saying Costco data helped trace the illnesses to the farm.

Del Monte officials claimed Keene “led, directed and conducted” a faulty investigation that ignored FDA microbiological tests that showed the Guatemalan cantaloupe tested negative for salmonella and other pathogens.

“Keene and the OHA conducted an apparently cursory investigation of the illnesses and concluded that they were associated with the consumption of cantaloupes by the patients who became ill,” according to the Del Monte suit. “Keene and the OHA reached this conclusion without a sufficient factual basis. … (and) without ever testing any cantaloupes to determine whether they were contaminated with salmonella.”

Del Monte officials said Costco (although not identified in the tort) received cantaloupe from four suppliers and the FDA’s tests found no connection between the cantaloupes with any cases of Salmonella Panama, including those in Oregon.

In media reports, fellow epidemiologists called Keene, an Oregon health investigator for 21 years, an internationally respected scientist.

Tony Green, an Oregon Department of Justice spokesman, said the state generally declines comment on pending or threatened litigation.

“Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division takes its role very seriously of protecting the public’s health,” Green said. “Public health’s experts work on dozens of suspected foodborne illness cases every year as a way to prevent people from getting sick. Investigators often help identify the source of an outbreak helping companies prevent further contamination.”

Dennis Christou, Fresh Del Monte’s vice president of marketing, said the suit is necessary to ensure investigations are conducted properly.

“When a product recall is later determined baseless due to a failure to conduct a comprehensive and reliable investigation, the public health is not protected,” he said. “The investigation must be comprehensive and reliable such that the public can be reasonable confident that the product recall effectively eliminates the threat to consumer safety.”

The FDA ended the recall, involving 5,000 cartons of cantaloupes, on July 29.