US consumer watchdog The Center for Science in the Public Interest has issued a scathing response to Fresh Del Monte Produce’s move to take legal action against US health officials after the company was linked to a salmonella outbreak.

Fresh Del Monte filed lawsuits against the Food and Drug Administration and Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division after the agencies said cantaloupes the company imported from a Guatemalan grower were contaminated, affecting 20 people.

The FDA restricted imports into the US, prompting Fresh Del Del Monte to issue a lawsuit to get the restrictions lifted. The company’s other lawsuit against the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division is being made because Fresh Del Monte asserts the agency made “misleading allegations”.

However, Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of The Center for Science in the Public Interest, has claimed the lawsuits set a dangerous – perhaps life-threatening – precedent.

She said: “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.

“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.

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“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.”