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Amid peanut scandal, Georgia moves to tighten its food-safety net

On Wednesday, the state legislature began work on measures to tighten food inspections, while in Washington, the CEO of Peanut Corp. refused to testify before Congress.

By Staff Writer / February 11, 2009

At Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis, volunteers open the last cases of peanut butter crackers to be destroyed Saturday Feb. 7, 2009.

MICHELLE PEMBERTON/THE INDIANAPOLIS STAR/AP

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Atlanta

Embarrassed and troubled by two major food-contamination scandals at peanut processing plants in three years, the state of Georgia is now vowing to spearhead efforts to fix a torn food-safety net – and save an American lunchbox standard.

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On Wednesday, the state legislature took up measures designed to prevent further flouting of food-safety laws that, Congress asserts, allowed a company to knowingly ship salmonella-tainted peanut products to nursing homes and schools. So far, nine people linked to the outbreak have died, and 600 others have fallen ill.

One proposed law would essentially deputize county health officials to follow up on local scuttlebutt on plant conditions. That idea came about after legislators realized the unsanitary conditions at the Blakely plant were an open secret in the town. Another Georgia bill would force producers to inform the state immediately of any positive tests for food-borne illnesses. If passed, that law would likely set a national precedent, experts say.

“This tragic situation must serve as a wake-up call and lead to reforms in the food safety network,” Oscar Garrison, an assistant Georgia agriculture commissioner, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Wednesday at a hearing on the outbreak in Washington. He said that Georgia “intends to lead the way.”

So far, Americans’ peanut consumption has dropped 25 percent in two weeks since the recall began, and lawmakers were concerned that a basic food staple was under attack. “The fate of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich hangs in the balance,” Rep. Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia told the House committee Wednesday, adding, “It’s those closest to the problem who are most infuriated by it.”

At the hearings on Capitol Hill, Peanut Corp. of America CEO Stewart Parnell claimed his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on the heels of an FBI raid of the company’s Lynchburg, Va., headquarters and the Blakely plant on Monday. The FBI closed a second PCA plant in Plainview, Texas, on Tuesday, after finding salmonella residue there.

In addition to statewide measures, the food-contamination scandal is likely to lead to a tightening of food-safety standards nationwide. After the ninth congressional food safety hearing in two years, Washington is increasingly likely to boost funding to a cash-strapped Food and Drug Administration, strengthen reporting requirements between local, state, and federal agencies, impose a mandatory product recall law, and improve the ability of the federal government to trace tainted products to their source.

The PCA scandal comes two years after a contamination of Peter Pan peanut butter at a ConAgra facility 75 miles from the Blakely plant. A Georgia agriculture subcommittee has started a probe into why the state agriculture commissioner never requested funding for more and better-paid inspectors.

Those criticisms took on even more poignancy after PCA workers described unsanitary conditions involving roaches, rats, and standing water at a time when nine different state inspections in the past two years failed to turn up any problems at the plant. “There should have been a red flag,” says Rep. Terry England, who sponsored one of the Georgia reform bills.

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