When the communication is between people in different countries, and the implications of an FDA letter or visit are interpreted differently, you can sometimes read the letters and hear the voices of men standing in different places. The relationships touched by this particular situation are particularly longstanding and deep.
We are fortunate to be able to share with our readers four letters. The first is a letter from Michael Warren of Central American Produce, who we also interview here. In this letter, he honors the request of the Molina family, owners of Agopecuaria Montelibano, to pass on their pleas to customers.
Then we run three successive letters from Miguel Molina, who has reached out, with pride and dignity, to ask for help from customers he has served for so many years:
The last four days have been very trying. We have been asked by the FDA to comply with a voluntary recall. It was our responsibility to communicate to all our clients the facts. We talked to each of our clients that received fruit in the period specified by the FDA to voluntarily withdraw the fruit and hold this fruit pending the final determination from FDA. Many are holding the fruit and some have begun to destroy it.
This is our moral obligation and we have followed through with it. There has been much pressure from our clients to provide information and guidance. Our clients are also under much pressure as a result of their distribution and the consumer has concerns since the FDA alert went to the press. Many of the clients have reacted differently following requests from customers, taking decision to react as is appropriate for each. We respect this since it is a voluntary recall. We have never received clear guidance in writing, only verbally from the FDA.
Also during this same period of time our friends of 30 years and long time suppliers, the Molina family, owners and operators of Agopecuaria Montelibano in Honduras, has been anguishing and gathered all of their credentials, certifications, testing and as much evidence that the FDA is providing to make a presentation and request to the FDA to consider the facts. They have been meeting in Washington for the last two days and will continue today to convince the FDA to change their position.
I know that their operations in the field and packng houses are state of the art and every penny has been invested year after year to continuously update practices and offer a safe product. They ship throughout the US, Canada, Europe and the UK. Clients have all visited their facilities and fields and have seen the work and sweat that goes along with this commitment.
The Molina family has asked me to pass on the information and argument from their side as they continue talks with the FDA. Please see the attached information below along with the links from the FDA. They have their entire livelihood at stake here that is eroding rapidly. They feel the information the FDA has used to arrive at their decision has no firm basis to point to cantaloupe or their firm. I have only seen what the FDA has been provided in their links and verbal conversations I have had.
It is my understanding the FDA still does not have a positive sample of Salmonella in cantaloupes or from the product of Agropecuaria Montelibano.
Please feel free to visit their website also: www.agrolibano.com.
San Lorenzo, Valle.
March 25th 2008
We hereby would like to give you an update regarding Mr. Miguel Molinas meeting yesterday with the FDA in Maryland. He was in company of the Honduran Ambassador, Director of SENASA, Director of SENASA for Foodsafe, Minister of commerce, Agrolibano’s three layers, Miguel Jr. and Jenny Molina.
On behalf of the FDA there where 15 people present and via teleconference they had the CDC’s staff and representatives of the American Embassy in Honduras. From the beginning of the meeting, the FDA’s authorities paid attention to all our arguments and they were very surprised of our operations and of the professionalism of our company’s executives in presenting all evidences, certificates, and microbiological analysis results to support our arguments during the meeting.
The FDA’s authorities have not been able to present a single positive salmonella result and they only have two tracebacks, as supportive evidence for their statement. The first goes back to a fruit (fresh-cut) processor in Washington State and the second case goes back to a buffet restaurant chain located in Salt Lake City. For respect to our final clients we prefer not to comment their names.
The trace back system is questionable and weak because it does not provide scientific proof that the contaminated fruit belongs to our company, and it does not certify that cantaloupe melons were the cause of the infection for salmonella.
As we informed you yesterday, we have already received the first results from the FDA which came out negative from a load in California. In addition, today we received 3 analyses with negative results from our main importer in the UK (Mack Multiples), which adds to the 149 negative analyses we had in our records.
In addition, we would like to inform you that the questioned cantaloupe melons were packed in January in Santa Rosa Farm, and currently the majority of the fruit which you and your clients have in your coolers was packed in Montelibano Farm. Rest assured, both farms do not have and have never had a bacteria infection, since as you know clients such as Chiquita and Dole make microbiological analysis at our farms. In addition, your company also performs microbiological analysis on the fruit upon arrival.
Presently we are still packing cantaloupes, honeydews and galia for Holland, Germany and the United Kingdom since all our clients are and will continue to accept and support us since they know Mike’s Melon is not infected.
For the United States, we are not packing cantaloupes but are packing honeydews, since as you know all honeydews are sowed, cultivated, handled, and packed in separate independent farms, such as Palenque farm and Embarcadero farm.
Considering these last points mentioned, we would also like to ask for your same support. Please wait with us for the next 4 days until we receive the remaining microbiological analysis results from the FDA. The process with the FDA might take this whole week, and every day that passes by we are losing a great amount of money.
Our exports to the USA represent 70% of our total sales, so our company is suffering tremendous losses. Therefore, we need the full support from all of you because without it our company would run out of business and more than 5,000 families will be directly affected. This is a hard statement considering that Agrolibano’s team has been dedicated to fulfilling all our customers’ needs since its foundation in 1979.
For this reason, we urgently request that you convince your clients that our melons are not the source of contamination. They should not be stopping the purchase of our white honeydews and galias because these two types of melons are sowed, harvested and packed in different farms. The cantaloupe is being questioned by FDA, but we are completely sure that the image of cantaloupe from our company will be completely cleaned once FDA releases the rest of the results.
We are aware that during the past some of your providers, which are very professional companies, have had incidents of positive salmonella and have received the full support from you. Our situation is less serious since we have not had positive salmonella. However, an intensive media communication on the alert from the FDA, who issued the alert with no proofs, is killing us!
We know for a fact that FDA is putting tremendous pressure over you and your clients (supermarkets, wholesalers, processors, food service customers, etc.) through phone calls and personal visit , but not in written form because yesterday, during the meeting, they clearly said that the recall was voluntary.
The FDA’s staff is being very aggressive on this matter, even making personal visits to our clients’ warehouses in order to make sure that the recall is done and that your company makes a public announcement. We believe the FDA is using this method just to relieve itself from responsibility and pass it on to you, your customers, or third parties because it does not have evidence that our melons are contaminated. Therefore, we urgently request your support us by:
- Not making a public announcement
- Stop the recall until we have a final confirmation this week
We hope that the FDA will change their first statement and consequently release all fruit and containers that are on hold.
We look forward to your prompt confirmation. From our side, we will keep you updated.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Dear and Loyal Costumers:
In the name of my family and all Agrolibano employees, we want to thank you for your support. There has been a lot going on, and we are doing our best to clean our reputation and convince the FDA to retract, but this is not an easy task. We are working with great lawyers and have full support from our government.
Today our president gave an interview on CNN and he ate one of our melons on it. As you can see our side of the story is slowly taking the media attention. CNN was also in our farm today.
We are completely sure that we did not create this problem. So far, we have 145 clean results of cantaloupes packed from December 22, 2007, thru March 25, 2008, two of these results are from shipments that FDA tested. As we mentioned on our previous update, the FDA did not have any positive results from our melons. All their argument is based only on the two trace backs that we mention in our public statement.
As you are aware, our business has been ruined. Not only the cantaloupes have been affected but also the honeydew and even our European costumers have big difficulties selling not just the cantaloupes but also the galias. They are making their own tests in order to convince the supermarket that the melons are free from any contamination. By the end of this deal our melons will be the most tested in history.
The FDA has our hands tight. They wrote the import alert in a particular way: our cantaloupes can not be lab-tested, they must be destroyed or returned to Honduras. Besides they have continued visiting you personally, asking you to make press releases about making voluntary recalls. This takes the pressure out of their hands and passes it to you. So far, only one of you has done it. Please do not play their game .Give us a little bit more time.
We are already talking to the shipping lines asking for their support to help us and keep the containers at the port during this week. If this does not get resolved by Monday, we will start making arrangement to return them back. Also we will discuss with every one of you on what will be the best solution with the fruit you have in your coolers.
We deeply appreciate your support and loyalty.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008 4:50 PM
Please see this last article from the New York Times:
The advancements today have been great. Tomorrow the first officer from the FDA is traveling to Honduras, and the rest of the commission will come on Friday. If everything is found to their satisfaction, they will lift the import alert directly from Honduras.
On the other hand, tomorrow [March 27] at 8:30 am, the Honduras minister of agriculture, minister of commerce and minister of health is meeting with Mr. Michael O. Leavitt US Secretary of Health and Human Services. The request will be to lift the alert prior to the visit based on the fact that they do not have any positive sample.
Also I would like to give you some more specific update about the two trace backs we are implicated with:
- The first happened in a casino in Washington. We have information that the specific delivery implicated had fruit from three different sources. The majority of the fruit was from other sources. Only 80 cases where actually ours.
- The second case happened in a buffet restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah
It is really difficult to believe how such a big organization with so much credibility can make a decision based on this information.
Things are moving really fast, we will keep you posted.
Again, thank very much for your support and loyalty.
We cannot imagine it is easy for a man like Miguel Molina to plead with customers for patience and support. We fear that he may be too optimistic, not realizing how difficult a giant bureaucracy as the US government can actually be. We wonder if he recognizes that in most cases, his customers have lost control — that the situation is now being handled by legal at a big supermarket chain, and nobody who knows him or his importers will be able to do much to help.
The FDA steamroller having rolled, importers now have had to listen to their own lawyers and do their own recalls. Perhaps Miguel Molina will feel betrayed. We hope not. Everyone who knows him and his family holds them in high esteem; not a bad word has been so much as whispered to us. It is just that the FDA has many ways of making everyone fear for their future.
We think if we can get past this juncture, start business up again, we will find a way. We suspect it will be easier to get some aid for Honduras than to get the FDA to admit it was wrong.
There are a lot of important facts in these letters. We hope they play a role in persuading the powers that be to do the right thing. But, beyond the specifics, there is something ennobling in these letters, a notion that men are not meat — the more you pound them, the tougher they will get. A notion that relationships matter and that it is reasonable to think those who have done right may be treated justly.
And these letters were not written by lawyers or committees. They were written by men, during very difficult times. And there is something in them that makes one very proud to be part of this industry.
Our prayers are always with those threatened with injustice.