GBI to see if peanut processor broke laws

Source of Article:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gov. Sonny Perdue on Thursday directed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review whether the Blakely peanut butter plant linked to the salmonella outbreak broke any state laws, officials said.

Also, state health inspectors were summoned to Atlanta on Thursday for additional training as officials announced they were toughening inspections of food-processing plants.

In Washington, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) expressed concern over food safety and set a February date to begin hearings on the salmonella outbreak.

As state and federal inquiries on the outbreak continued Thursday, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin asked Perdue for assistance from the GBI.

“Due to the severity of the situation, it has had a devastating impact not only on Georgia’s agricultural industry and citizens, but also on the nation,” Irvin said in his Thursday letter.

“The investigation should encompass any potential criminal activities related to the recent salmonella outbreak.”

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the agency would review whether the state or the federal government is the appropriate jurisdiction to pursue charges. Depending on the answer, the GBI could launch a full criminal investigation, Brantley said.

Federal health officials have identified the Georgia plant, owned by Peanut Corp. of America, as the sole source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people in 43 states and has been linked to the deaths of eight people.

State and federal health officials said earlier this week that they believed the plant broke the law by allowing products tainted with salmonella to enter the marketplace.

On several occasions, the company tested the peanut butter, found salmonella, then had the product retested, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The company then shipped the product, the FDA said.

Georgia’s Agriculture Department, which inspects the plant, said the agency would begin devoting more time to food-processing plant inspections, said Oscar Garrison, an assistant commissioner in the department.

The agency employs about 60 inspectors, most of whom were in Atlanta for the meeting Thursday.

The agency plans to shift some of its resources from checking food markets for outdated products to enhancing inspections at food-processing plants, Garrison said.

The new priorities would add an hour or more to those inspections, which typically last two to three hours, he said.

Inspectors will still check markets for some outdated items such as milk, eggs, dairy, meat, baby formula and prepackaged food, Garrison said.

Critics have charged that state inspectors should have detected more of the serious problems at the plant.

Garrison said that inspectors took a “snapshot in time” and conditions at the plant could have changed later.

“You have to remember that we have 16,000 firms that we inspect in the state, and 60 inspectors, who stay on average three hours at the site,” said Garrison. “The FDA was at the plant for 14 days.”

Georgia lawmakers such as state Sen. John Bulloch (R-Ochlocknee) have vowed to introduce legislation, possibly as early as Friday, that would sharpen laws regulating food-processing plants.

Irvin, who is working with lawmakers, wants the plants to be required to test their products and report those findings to the state.

In Washington, Waxman said he would focus on the Blakely plant when he begins hearings that are slated to begin Feb. 11.

Among the people Waxman wants to testify are Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corp. of America; Irvin and representatives of two labs the company used for testing.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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