Sen. proposes crackdown on food testing

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Atlanta—State Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, proposed a bill Monday to impose stricter guidelines on food testing for processing plants in response to the nationwide salmonella outbreak that was linked to a Blakely plant.

Senate Bill 80, the Food Safety Testing, Reporting and Record Keeping bill, was introduced this week.

“When people’s lives are at stake, food safety inspections should not be subject to lax regulations,” Sen. Bulloch said in a news release.  “Consumers must be assured their food is safe and we must protect the integrity of Georgia’s producers. Much of our economy depends on the state’s agriculture industry, which cannot afford to suffer the negative impacts of food recalls.”

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Sen. Bulloch’s legislation would require that food processing facilities report suspicions of contaminated food, food testing and retention of testing results to the Department of Agriculture.

This legislation would provide the department free access to any food processor’s testing records for the presence of contaminants.

The Commissioner of Agriculture is also directed to establish requirements for regular food testing on a yearly or more frequent basis.

The measure strengthens requirements for reporting contaminated products or the suspicions of contaminated products, requiring that a food processor report testing results by the next business day to the department. This will ensure that any testing or suspicions are reported directly to the state. The bill gives the commissioner the right to test any food if there are reasonable grounds to suspect contamination. Financial responsibility for the cost of testing lies solely with the food establishment, not the department.

Sen. Bulloch said despite misleading media reports, the peanuts in the contaminated peanut butter were not the cause of the outbreak. While Georgia peanuts remain a safe product, the state’s agriculture industry has already experienced a negative impact.  The federal government has launched a criminal investigation to determine if the plant knew about the contamination prior to releasing the product to the marketplace. Hearings begin this week in Washington, D.C.

The outbreak of salmonella illness began in late summer and national news outlets report that the outbreak has been traced to the Blakely, Ga., plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America. The company sells peanut butter to nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions and makes peanut ingredients that are used in a variety of products, including cookies and dog biscuits.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said last week that the company knowingly shipped products that tested positive for salmonella on 12 occasions in 2007 and 2008, sometimes after sending the product to another laboratory and getting a negative reading for salmonella.

Food safety experts say salmonella can live in pockets of peanut butter, so that one batch could test both negative and positive. In that case, it should have been destroyed, they said.

In one of the largest recalls in history, the FDA and the company have recalled every product made from peanuts processed at the plant in the past two years. That list, which grows daily, now includes more than 800 products.

Georgia is the No. 1 peanut producer in the nation.

In 2008, peanut production in Georgia was 2.3 billion pounds, compared to the previous year’s 1.6 billion pounds, according to the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Georgia produces 45 percent of the United States’ peanuts. Georgia has 14,160 farms with peanuts and more than 4,800 active farms.  Georgia has approximately 250 peanut-related businesses.  The peanut industry contributes more than 50,000 jobs in Georgia.

Sen. Bulloch serves as chairman of the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee. He represents the 11th Senate District, which includes Colquitt, Decatur, Early, Grady, Miller and Seminole counties and portions of Mitchell and Thomas counties.