Health Fitness

Proposed class-action lawsuit filed in Manitoba over cantaloupe tainted with salmonella

An Ontario woman who became ill after eating cantaloupe is the lead plaintiff in a second proposed class-action lawsuit filed over cantaloupe-linked salmonella infections across the country.

A statement of claim filed in the Court of King’s Bench in Manitoba says Sarnia, Ont. resident Michele Lee Gagne had abdominal cramps, diarrhea and vomiting in early November after eating cantaloupe that she believes was tainted with salmonella.

“The combination of these symptoms is uncommon for the plaintiff, particularly the vomiting,” says the document filed by London, Ont.-based law firm Siskinds on Dec. 22. The firm said there were “strategic” reasons for filing the case in Manitoba but did not elaborate.

A proposed class-action related to tainted cantaloupes was filed in Quebec earlier in December, while a third is pending in British Columbia.

The claim filed in Manitoba names Mexican company Malichita, which grew the melons, and two U.S. firms — Trufresh in Nogales, Ariz., and Los Angeles-based Dulcinea — that imported and distributed the fruit for sale in Canada and elsewhere. It alleges all three defendants were negligent in failing to test the cantaloupes before they ended up in stores or restaurants, in breach of consumer protection laws.

The claims have not been tested in court and the proposed class actions must be certified by the courts to move ahead.

Seven people in Canada have died from cantaloupe-linked salmonella and there have been 164 laboratory-confirmed cases in eight provinces, 111 of them in Quebec, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in its latest update last month. It said the majority of people who became sick are aged five and younger and 65 and older.

Recalls issued in November

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency first issued recall warnings on Nov. 1, which were later expanded to include both Malichita and Rudy brand cantaloupes, as well as various types of pre-cut cantaloupes and fruit trays sold in stores.

Bridget Moran, a lawyer for Gagne, said the 52-year-old woman was sick for 10 days after eating cantaloupe.

She said the three defendants have yet to be served court documents. They may not need to file statements of defence until the lawsuit is certified, if that happens, Moran noted.

Dulcinea did not respond to a request for comment, and representatives for Malichita could not be contacted.

Rafael Roiz, CEO of Trufresh, said he could not comment due to the pending legal action. But in a statement to The Canadian Press, he offered sympathy to those affected by the salmonella outbreak.

“We realize that no words will be of comfort to the people and their families who have felt its greatest impact,” the statement said. “We continue to work with our suppliers, customers and health authorities to investigate how the contamination may have happened.”

Anyone in Canada who is believed to have become ill or died from tainted cantaloupes could register to be part of the class action filed in Manitoba, Moran said.

Cantaloupe vulnerable to salmonella from wild animals: expert

Saro Turner, a Vancouver-based lawyer for Slater Vecchio, the law firm that filed the proposed class action in Quebec, said the firm is expected to also file a class-action lawsuit in B.C. later this month so people from elsewhere in the country can join it.

The Quebec suit, which names Malichita and Trufresh as defendants, is limited to tainted cantaloupe cases in that province. It alleges that a Montreal man spent almost a week in hospital in November with a confirmed salmonella infection after eating cantaloupes.

Siyun Wang, associate professor of food safety engineering at the University of British Columbia, said cantaloupe is grown in bushes and is particularly vulnerable to salmonella carried by wild animals, such as reptiles whose feces can contaminate the soil.

“A major feature of salmonella compared to many other food-borne pathogens that make people sick is that it can be carried by a very wide variety of hosts,” she said, comparing it to E. coli, which is mainly carried by cattle.

Salmonella is also a more robust pathogen that can survive in very dry conditions and tends to stay stuck to the rough rind of cantaloupes.

Consumers should thoroughly wash the melons before eating them but that is mainly the responsibility of food suppliers, said Wang. She added that machines equipped with brushes to clean large batches of cantaloupes, typically with a chlorine solution, may not be effective if the melons are being moved around and contaminating others.

Pre-cut cantaloupe is more vulnerable to contamination and should be avoided, she said.

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