Food safety advocates called on federal officials Tuesday to release the name of an Indiana farm that recalled its cantaloupes amid a salmonella outbreak that's killed at least two people and sickened dozens of others in 20 states.
Advocacy groups said people have a right to know the farm's name and the details of its cantaloupe distribution network so they can protect their families from the outbreak that's killed two Kentucky residents and stricken at least 140 others, including about 30 who have been hospitalized.
Barbara Kowalcyk, chief executive officer of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, said health officials usually are careful not to point fingers early in investigations of foodborne illnesses because they don't want to hurt farms, food manufacturers or others who may later turn out to have no role in an outbreak.
But she said her group believes it's crucial to get information to the public "in a timely manner."
"When you have people who are getting sick and hospitalized and even dying, in my opinion as a consumer advocate, that takes precedence," Kowalcyk said. "You need to give people the information they need to make informed decisions for their families."
Indiana health officials issued an advisory Friday telling residents to discard any cantaloupes grown in southwestern Indiana that they bought on or after July 7. The Food and Drug Administration also has advised consumers to throw out any cantaloupe that may be from that area.
The state's advisory said a farm in that region - where most of Indiana's cantaloupes and melons are grown - had voluntarily recalled its cantaloupes and stopped shipping them as a "precaution." It did not name the farm, and officials have declined since then to release additional information about the farm, saying the investigation being led by the FDA isn't complete.
FDA spokeswoman Shelly L. Burgess said Tuesday that until investigators have pinpointed the source or sources of the salmonella, the agency won't release the name of any farm suspected of being involved.
"We want to be sure," she said. "We don't want to falsely or prematurely name someone."
Amy Reel, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, said test results from samples taken from a farm suspected as the source of contamination are expected early next week. But she also said officials are also looking at multiple other possible sources of contamination, "including a number of farms, retailers and distributors."
Identification as the source of a disease can put a farm out of business. Jensen Farms in Colorado filed for bankruptcy soon after its melons were identified as the source of a listeria outbreak that killed 30 people last year. Its owner, Eric Jensen, now faces multiple lawsuits related to the outbreak.
Indiana ranked fourth in the nation in cantaloupe production last year, and growers are worried about the consequences of the latest outbreak.
Hubert Etienne, who co-owns Etienne Farms near Washington, Ind., said his wholesale customers began canceling orders for cantaloupe as soon as last week's advisory was issued.
"It was immediate. The wholesale market just dried up," he said. "It wasn't a big hit for us, but some of the big farmers had to dump all of their cantaloupes. They're losing thousands of dollars a day. I really feel bad for those big growers."
Etienne said his farm's cantaloupes were tested and found to be free of salmonella, but there are few takers for them now at the farm's market.
Most cantaloupes have a sticker identifying where the fruit was grown, and consumers should ask retailers about any fruit that's not labeled, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised on its website. The agency urged consumers to throw out any fruit with unclear origins.
Melon growers outside Indiana say they too are feeling the effects of such warnings.
Sales are down at Westside Produce, which ships about 2 million boxes of cantaloupe each year from California's San Joaquin Valley, said Garrett Patricio, the company's vice president and general counsel.
Patricio said retailers are already wary of cantaloupe after last year's listeria deaths and the public sometimes fail to pay attention to the details of foodborne illness outbreaks.
"Oftentimes, if someone says don't eat cantaloupe, people don't eat cantaloupe regardless of where it's from," Patricio said.