Editorial: No reason to celebrate state food safety bill

Source of Article: http://www.onlineathens.com/stories/021909/opi_395487659.shtml


Athens Banner-Herald  |  Story updated at 8:05 pm on 2/18/2009

Nine people are killed, hundreds more are made ill - and apparently that's the threshold that has to be reached before Georgia legislators can decide it might be a good idea to think about addressing state inspection protocols at food-processing facilities.

Sure, it's good news the state Senate voted 50-0 Wednesday in favor of legislation imposing new guidelines on food processors in the state. And given the terrible human toll taken by tainted peanuts that apparently were knowingly shipped out by the Peanut Corp. of America facility in Blakely, there's little reason to doubt the bill will win approval in the House and get the governor's signature in short order, sealing the good news that improved food inspection has become a reality in Georgia.

It's also interesting, though, to note that passage of Senate Bill 80 wasn't accompanied by the flurry of e-mailed news releases from various corners of the Capitol that normally fly out in the wake of notable legislative action as lawmakers jostle to claim a share of credit.

Could this relative silence be an indication that senators are tacitly cognizant that, in truth, there's nothing much to be celebrated in connection with Senate Bill 80?

If that's not the case, it most assuredly should be.

One look at the legislation, and the immediate question that comes to mind is why the provisions of the Senate bill weren't already part of state law.

Specifically, the bill:

► Requires the state agriculture commissioner to establish requirements for regular testing of ingredients and final products at food-processing facilities by a state-approved lab, including the frequency of such tests. The bill mandates that the facility pay for all tests.

► Mandates that the results of any test showing a food processor's final product or any ingredients in that product have been adulterated be reported to the state Department of Agriculture within 24 hours of the processor receiving notice of the adulteration.

► Gives the agriculture commissioner the power to require tests of ingredients or foods whenever the commissioner determines "there are reasonable grounds to suspect that such ingredients or foods may be injurious to health."

► Requires that records of any tests required under the legislation be kept on file by the food processor for no less than two years, and be made available to the Department of Agriculture for inspection.

What Senate Bill 80 does, then, is codify what should have been a long-standing set of common-sense testing standards that, if they'd been in place already, arguably could have prevented the deaths and illnesses traced to the South Georgia peanut plant.

Incredibly, the situation isn't much better at the federal level, where the salmonella contamination of products from the Peanut Corp. of America facility also has occasioned an outbreak of embarrassed - or at least it ought to be embarrassed - legislative harrumphing with regard to federal food safety regulators.

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, for example, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a Sunday story that there are likely to be some federal legislative changes forthcoming with regard to food safety regulations.

"I'm not one to think you ought to create and add new bureaucracies," Chambliss told the Atlanta newspaper, "but this may be a time where we see the FDA can't do the job. Maybe the FDA ought to concentrate on drugs and let a new agency come in and concentrate on food safety inspections - or put (food inspections) under the USDA."

Similarly to the Georgia legislature, the question with regard to Chambliss' comments is why, if he so readily can suggest ways of improving food safety inspections, those sorts of changes hadn't already been made.

While it's a good thing that federal and state lawmakers are now focused on food safety issues, there's an abiding sadness in the fact that it took deaths and illnesses to produce that focus. And it's sadder still that those deaths and illnesses might have been prevented with just a little legislative forethought.


Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday, February 19, 2009



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