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Central American’s Warren
Speaks Out About Cantaloupe ‘Alert’

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, March 28, 2008

Produce is very much a relationship business, and one effect when FDA issues an “import alert” such as it did on cantaloupe produced by Agropecuaria Montelibano is that it puts these relationships under tremendous strain.

One of the long established and largest importing families has a relationship with Agropecuaria Montelibano. We wanted to see how the Warren family was holding up under this difficult situation. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to speak with Michael Warren:

Michael Warren, President, Central American Produce, Pompano Beach, Florida

Q: How has your company been dealing with the cantaloupe outbreak?

A: It’s been a little crazy. FDA issued an alert asking for a voluntary recall of cantaloupe melons by this one grower based in San Lorenzo, Honduras.

FDA told us on the phone to use certain dates as the guide — for importers, product dated back from March 1 to the present, and for food processors, from February 20 to present. It also put this grower on automatic detention.

We as a company are definitely concerned for the health and welfare of consumers so we are complying with the voluntary recall. But there haven’t been any confirmed results of salmonella in the melons of this company to date. FDA has no positive results reported from any testing, including recent testing linked to this company to my knowledge.

I wish the FDA or CDC could explain better. I had a conversation with an FDA agent who explained it like this: People back in January and early February were getting sick and went to their doctors and were diagnosed with Salmonella. So when CDC starting getting reports of an increase in Salmonella they started investigating the sicknesses.

And from their interviewing techniques and DNA testing — they have some sort of epidemiological method — they concluded it was from a common strain of salmonella and a common enzyme. It can be in the system two or three weeks before it shows up from what they told me, so then they start with questions and answers — what caused this illness, where were they eating the last few weeks… and their process narrowed the problem down to cantaloupe.

I don’t understand how they can determine that the problem came from this one grower in Honduras. That is still mysterious. I have a hard time with that.

There’s still a lot to be shown on how they determined it was this particular product and this grower. Meanwhile it’s affecting the whole industry. There’s a panic in the industry over cantaloupes now. The warnings are everywhere you look in the media. It’s a voluntary recall, it’s a preventive measure and naturally we’re complying with it.

FDA put out a release for consumers. We don’t know what brand it is. There have been no confirmed illnesses with any particular brand. We don’t know how FDA came up with this one Honduras grower. There’s no importer that’s been named. There are a number of importers from this grower.

We know the grower. We handle some of his product, mostly for program business. But we have product coming in from other farms and other countries as well. I can understand initially consumers are probably concerned and everyone has to take the proper precautions. We’re expecting it will quiet down in the next few days. Produce is safe. And we in the industry realize we have a safe produce supply chain. All of us are following strict guidelines.

Q: What is your relationship with Agropecuaria Montelibano? Can you vouch for the grower’s reputation?

A: We’ve had a long term relationship with this grower, who ships to Europe, England and the U.S. and has the strictest controls and all the certifications and is continually testing and monitoring his products. The company’s public statement regarding this incident gives a comprehensive picture of its practices and how they’ve been wronged.

I think the FDA should define a little more how they’ve drawn this conclusion about these illnesses traced back to Agropecuaria Montelibano. There were no confirmed tests, no clear evidence from their investigations. Meanwhile, the FDA’s actions are playing havoc in the industry.

This grower is very reputable, professional and very conscious of food safety. Our company, as well as other companies, has melons that aren’t involved in this recall and these include melons from Honduras as well as other countries. We didn’t have that much product from this grower on shelves.

Q: Dole and Chiquita both have specified they are not doing a “recall” but rather a “withdrawal” of product. I’ve learned from an FDA spokesperson there are distinct definitions on actions a company can pursue during an outbreak or in the hopes of preventing one.

A: FDA told us this was a Class 1 Recall and we wanted to abide by FDA’s recommendation. We weren’t aware of these word distinctions.

Q: Why does your recall notice on the FDA website stay so general and not define product lot numbers and dates, product shipped between this date and that date, etc?

A: It’s not an official recall notice; it’s a press release the FDA requested us to put out for a voluntary nationwide recall. We sent a draft to them a few times for them to OK the information and insure it was correct. We kept the wording general because we didn’t want it to be lengthy; we had advice of FDA and legal council. All we’re doing is a voluntary recall.

It’s a perishable item, so it’s what’s available and that’s what can be withdrawn. In our letters to clients, we gave them a period of time — any entries into the U.S. from March 1 to present, and in the case of a processor, an entry of February 20 to present. We told them this verbally, and then provided them with the order information, dates, quantities, PO numbers, whatever information was pertinent with their shipments in that date range.

Q: Why is FDA targeting the entire Honduras company and not specific fields or packinghouses related to the products in question?

A: When the FDA came to visit me, they had four different addresses listed for the company. FDA says it has to take a broad approach because it doesn’t have the information on where the problem originated. Somehow from consumers telling CDC where they had purchased product, an investigation took place and it came back to this grower as a common source.

Q: Did CDC or FDA contact you during this process of discovery as a supplier to this grower?

A: Just last Friday, when FDA sent a field agent to our company and sat down with me to explain the situation.

Q: What is the rule now for bringing in new product from this grower? Do you need permission from the FDA?

A: Right now, they are on an alert — detention without physical examination.

The grower is not packing or shipping cantaloupe, but there are some on the waters. There are certain companies that have arrivals; the FDA is taking samples and testing these products. The tests will involve 15 samples per container of product. I don’t know what happens when they get the results. Once those results come back negative, the FDA is not saying the product can be distributed. There is no clear direction on this.

Q: So the Honduras grower and its business partners are left in limbo?

A: We received another letter from my shipper that is ripping my heart out right now; asking all distributors to hold off on destroying product, saying it’s had more than 149 negative tests, and that this is a voluntary recall. The grower is pleading for its customers to stand by them.

Ours is a 30-year relationship of seeing their dedication and investment and commitment to food safety. The grower asked if I could give this letter to my customers. I already sent out a letter to the trade about our melons in Guatemala, and letters telling them of our voluntary recall. And we’ve posted our voluntary recall notice on the FDA website

It’s too late. Each company is taking direction from some corporate leader or entity in their company. I can tell them what’s going on, but in the end it’s the decision of each one of these companies. I need to respect each of my client’s decisions.

There are four things of special note here:

1) Most companies are simply at a loss as to what to do in these situations. The FDA shows up without a notice; few companies have the expertise to challenge the FDA as to whether this is actually a Class I Recall or should be classified as a Market Withdrawal and so they just do what they are told.

This might be a place for the trade associations to step in. Why not make a deal with association counsel to be available for emergency consultations on FDA matters? What a great benefit of giving an association member a free consultation with lawyers who know FDA when you really need it?

2) This business of the FDA walking around dumbfounded without addresses, etc., is bizarre. It took the Pundit less than two minutes to find addresses, websites, e-mails and phone numbers.

This is a very important organization in Honduras. The notion that the FDA couldn’t talk to them immediately strains credulity. You don’t need sophisticated traceback systems to know which packing house and which farm the product came from. If the restaurant is the source implicated by a consumer, you go back to the distributor, who bought it, probably, from the importer, who has a van number from the exporter. That van number should quickly give them the packing house and the farm. What efforts did FDA make to limit the scope of this “import alert”?

3) Although Michael Warren did everything he was told to do by FDA, it is clear that he is more than a little skeptical. Why shouldn’t he be? The FDA has presented no evidence. There is a certain arrogance in the way FDA operates that has to be dealt with.

They should have to make a public case. Otherwise, how do we know someone at FDA isn’t mistaken? Or being paid off by someone’s competitors? A secure organization would make public its information so that it could be scrutinized.

4) The shipper sends a letter that is “ripping my heart out right now,” and out of respect and loyalty for a “30-year relationship of seeing their dedication and investment and commitment to food safety,” Michael sends it on. But he sees the train has left the station. Nobody is listening. The FDA has spoken and that means liability, and that is the end of the story. As Michael says: “It’s too late.”

And what, precisely, has been accomplished that justified this? In fact, isn’t the message the FDA is sending that it doesn’t matter at all how well respected you are? It doesn’t matter who will vouch for you. It doesn’t matter how many certifications you have. How many customers have vetted you.

Isn’t the FDA’s real message that nothing you do will matter? And is that the message likely to increase food safety efforts? It’s ripping our hearts out too.

Many thanks to Michael and Central American Produce for taking the time to speak with the industry at such a difficult moment.

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