Will Del Monte’s lawsuit against Oregon health succeed in setting poisonous tone for outbreak investigations?

Del Monte Fresh Produce, a company that recalled its cantaloupes in March after health investigators in several states linked them to a Salmonella Panama outbreak, said yesterday that is plans to sue Oregon Health Authority and, Dr William Keene, one of the nation’s most well-known disease outbreak investigators (right, exactly as shown), claiming that the company’s products were wrongly singled out.

Lisa Schnirring of CIDRAP news at the University of Minnesota interviewed several public health types, who say the company’s suit is unprecedented, and some worry that it may inhibit future foodborne illness investigations.

Lon Kightlinger, MPH, PhD, state epidemiologist with the South Dakota Department of Health, said some of his department’s disease investigations have involved legal tug-of-wars. "Although we do have some worries of legal threats, that does not drive our investigation, but causes us to do a better job," he said.

In Iowa, laws require public health officials to treat the names of entities such as restaurants or companies the same as people, said Patricia Quinlisk, MD, MPH, medical director and state epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health.

She said that, before going public with names, health officials must discuss the issue with the state attorney general’s office to make sure the action complies with a "necessary for public health" clause. "Thus something like this might have more scrutiny here than other places," she said, adding that she’s never seen a legal threat like Del Monte’s.

Tim Jones, MD, MPH, state epidemiologist for the Tennessee Department of Health, said he’s been bullied and subjected to implied threats in the course of epidemiologic investigations. "I’ve never taken them seriously, and legally I’ve never been worried," he said.

Though Del Monte’s legal threat could create an inhibitory effect, epidemiologists take pride in being able to respond to outbreaks faster and freer than federal agencies, which are often bound by legal restrictions, Jones said.

"Our job is to protect people."

Some measure of immunity is needed for investigators, Jones said. "If anyone in public health is nervous about getting sued, it could be dangerously inhibitory."