WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration assured Honduran officials Thursday it would act quickly to inspect the cantaloupe growing and packing facilities that exported melons linked to dozens of cases of salmonella in 16 states.
The Food and Drug Administration blocked imports of cantaloupes from Honduras-based Agropecuaria Montelibano after the illnesses were reported. No deaths were reported, but 14 people were hospitalized.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and other U.S. officials met with their counterparts from Honduras, who urged creation of a joint task force to inspect the facilities.
"I committed to them we will have people on the ground tomorrow," Leavitt said in an interview.
He said a team from the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA had been sent. "Their concern is we act as expeditiously as good science will allow," he said.
A message left at the Honduran Embassy was not immediately returned Thursday.
In a letter to Leavitt that was released Thursday, the Honduran secretary of agriculture and livestock said the import ban had led to a growing crisis in his nation's agricultural sector.
"We are confronted with potentially devastating losses of jobs and income within a critical sector of our economy, and one which must function within an extremely short growing season," Hector Hernandez Amador wrote. His letter was given to reporters by a public relations firm.
Amador said damage from the ban extends beyond Agropecuaria Montelibano's cantaloupes.
"All Honduran growers and producers of all melons are encountering significant resistance, not just in the United States, but in other markets throughout the world," he wrote. "Most customers are simply refusing to buy any and all Honduran melon products."
Amador asked for the formation of an emergency task force made up of representatives from both countries. The task force would review data for potential health and food safety concerns, and it would inspect growing and packing facilities. If no problems turned up, the task force would provide for the resumption of cantaloupe exports to the United States.
He called for the review to be completed in days, not weeks.
Leavitt said that the Honduran representatives understood that Health and Human Services officials have regulatory responsibilities that must be met to ensure the safety of food in the United States.
"We want to find a remedy to this in the short term and to learn what we can to prevent it in the long term," Leavitt said.
The company on its Web site says it ships 2.5 million boxes of cantaloupes to the U.S. annually.
Also on Thursday, two companies issued recalls of cantaloupe products. Chiquita Brands International Inc. announced a recall of whole cantaloupes grown, packed and shipped by Agropecuaria Montelibano. The cantaloupes went out nationwide. Simply Fresh Fruit Inc. announced a recall of certain cut fruit products.
On the Net:
Food and Drug Administration: http://tinyurl.com/39pwcu
Agropecuaria Montelibano: http://www.agrolibano.hn/htms/introduction.htm
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.