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.

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

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.

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.

“It all kind of came from saying, ‘All right, what’s all going on and how could this maybe have been prevented?’ ” says Representative England in a phone interview from Washington. “And it boiled down to: What if there might have been a set of local eyes and ears that could have stepped in and said, ‘Let’s look at this?’ ”

Former Food and Drug Administration policy commissioner Michael Taylor says more local vigilance could indeed help.

“These agencies have to be a cop on the beat and be prepared to take action to prevent problems, and this is what’s missing in the way the inspection system works,” says Mr. Taylor. “We need all the eyes and ears on the ground that we can get.”

Critics, however, say the Blakely lapses indicate that what’s really needed is a better-funded and more robust federal system, rather than the current patchwork state-by-state system, which they say relies too much on local and state agencies to root out unsanitary plants. With 400 fewer federal investigators on hand than five years ago, the FDA today regularly contracts with states to carry out plant inspections.

“It may be very difficult for a state like Georgia, which exports peanuts, and where those interests may be very powerful, to stand up against a big local industry,” says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.

But John McKissick, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, puts more blame on antiquated laws and confusing inspection regimes than on local interests. “Maybe 20 years ago that would have been the case,” Mr. McKissick says. “But I don’t think it’s true today.”

In fact, he says, a major reason reforms are likely to finally move forward is that farmers and food-industry magnates are reversing their objections and are coming out in support of major reforms. In Georgia alone, millions of dollars in farm revenues were lost last year when a salmonella scare involving jalapeños meant a shutdown of plants across the state, even though there was no evidence that state growers supplied tainted peppers.

“We support these [new reforms] not only because we don’t want anybody to be sick from our farm products – that’s our main concern – but it’s an economic disaster for farmers when something like this occurs,” says Jon Huffmaster, the Georgia Farm Bureau’s legislative director in Macon.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the sheer symbolism of the peanut butter jelly sandwich – one committee member called it “more American than even apple pie” – seems to have spurred committee members to promise reforms of inspection laws that go back to 1938.

The tone of federal regulators is also changing under the Obama administration, says Ms. Halloran. During food safety hearings under the Bush administration, Stephen Sundlof, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, testified that the FDA needed neither more money nor more authority to do its job.

On Wednesday, in the wake of the historic 1,700-product recall of one of America’s most basic foodstuffs, Mr. Sundlof struck a different note, admitting that dramatic reforms at both the state and federal level would in fact be helpful to the FDA’s mission of keeping the American food chain safe.

Nationally, “I’ve never seen so much recognition of the need for reform as we’ve got right now,” says Taylor. “Now we’ve got the food industry at the table, and we’ve got Congress working on it in a serious way.”

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