Still No Proof of Salmonella in Melons

It took a single news release to undo what it had taken the Molina family 30 years to accomplish. In March, the Food and Drug Administration sent out a global news alert saying it suspected that a salmonella outbreak in the western United States was linked to cantaloupes grown on the Molinas’ farm in Honduras.

Overnight, the farm lost most of its business as the United States closed its borders to its melons. Then the family began to field calls from jittery distributors as far away as England and the Netherlands.

Four months later, the FDA has yet to prove that the salmonella strain originated at the Molinas’ 7,400-acre farm, Agropecuaria Montelibano.

The family’s company, Grupo Agrolibano, claims that it has tested more than 600 cantaloupes in collaboration with distributors in Europe and the Americas and that all tests came back negative.

It has been trying to convince the FDA that Montelibano was not the source of the outbreak. Yet the import alert, which bars shipments of the Honduran melons from entering the United States, remains.

“We understand that the FDA is simply trying to protect the American people, but we think it needs to take a different approach,” said Jenny Molina, whose father started the operation.

She has spent months in the United States trying to get the ban lifted. “Whether they mean to or not,” she said, “they are destroying our company.”

If the ban is not lifted soon, Molina said, Agrolibano will miss the planting cycle, lay off 5,000 workers and likely go out of business, since it sends 75 percent of its exports to the United States.

The Molinas said FDA officials have visited their farm several times, searching for the source of the salmonella outbreak.

But even though they have yet to find a direct link, agents have forced them to make expensive changes, Molina said. An electrical line above the farm had to be rerouted so that perching birds wouldn’t soil the cantaloupes. Then Agrolibano had to dig six wells at a cost of $400,000 for irrigation, instead of using river water. The FDA worried that the contamination might have come from the river _ although the Molinas said they were using treated river water for irrigation.

Molina said the farm has made the technical changes required by the FDA, but the agency wants to verify them while Montelibano is in production.

It’s something of a Catch-22. The Molinas are unsure they want to plant a new crop and then be stuck with melons they can’t export _ if the FDA doesn’t lift the ban.

Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said that once Grupo Agrolibano makes the changes required, the alert will be lifted. “They have to demonstrate that they have put preventive controls in place that are working,” he said.

The Molinas said the extra expenses are putting the farm at an unfair disadvantage compared to neighboring exporters and do little to address the larger problems.

But some say the FDA’s system for policing imported foods _ spot checks at ports and border checkpoints and import alerts when problems are found _ doesn’t really do enough to protect the nation’s food supply.

“The FDA doesn’t have the manpower to do as many inspections as needed to ensure the safety of the food supply. It’s not that they cannot do their job; they just don’t have the resources,” said Jianghong Meng, interim director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, a joint venture of the FDA and the University of Maryland. It provides international training to exporters.

Christine Humphrey, a former FDA official and now head of the food and drug practice at the Fuerst Humphrey Ittleman law firm in Miami, said there needs to be more clarity for foreign exporters.

“The problem is there is no uniformity,” she said. “You have importers, distributors and foreign manufacturers that do not know what the rules are, and it’s unclear how to keep your product from being banned.”


(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Elaine Walker of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)

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