State starts new food-safety guidelines

Source of Article:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

State food safety officials have implemented the first-ever guidelines for inspections of peanut processing plants following the salmonella outbreak, but industry watchdogs doubt the agency has the enforcement to make them stick.

The state Agriculture Department has drafted three pages of safety checks, questions to ask and documents to examine. All pertain to the peanut plants’ cleanliness, preparation of products and methods for preventing salmonella and other contamination.

• For all the latest developments on the peanut crisis and the salmonella outbreak, with an updated list of recalled items, plus background on the scare, go to the AJC's special report:

“We’re asking for a lot more information,” said Oscar Garrison, Georgia’s assistant agriculture commissioner for consumer protection.

Industry watchdogs question whether state inspectors will get tough regarding those requests. They note that the department has imposed no fines or other penalties against peanut plants in the three years for which the agency maintains records.

“The agency does have to become tougher,” said Tony Corbo, a representative with Food & Water Watch, a Washington watchdog nonprofit group. Corbo said the new inspection guidelines “seemed to be more of a questionnaire rather than any enforcement of anything.”

Garrison acknowledged that the peanut plants are not required by law to provide about one-third of the 28 requests for documentation, including some of the most vital to food safety. These include records regarding in-house tests for salmonella and the operation of the peanut roaster, which is used to kill contamination.

Georgia has 27 peanut processing plants and five plants that manufacture peanut butter. The state Agriculture Department, in charge of food safety, said these plants are inspected about once a year. While prior inspections followed general guidelines on food safety, the new program marks the first time there have been specific instructions for inspecting peanut plants.

The recent outbreak is the second peanut butter-related salmonella outbreak traced to Georgia in four years.

The current outbreak has sickened 683 people in 46 states and may be linked to nine deaths. It has prompted one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history, with 3,235 products on the federal list.

Garrison said peanut plant operators have so far cooperated with the new guidelines. Several of the guidelines respond to problems that health officials found at the Blakely plant in South Georgia, including roaches, mold and a history of selling peanut products that had tested positive for salmonella.

Garrison said the agency is planning for greater regulation.

Senate Bill 80, which recently passed, would mandate, not request, state access to records regarding the destruction of food contamination such as salmonella, which could include salmonella testing and logs on the use of roasters. The bill also would demand that a company that finds salmonella notify the state within 24 hours.

Another bill, which passed the state House Tuesday, would allow county health inspectors to assist in inspecting food processing plants.

Garrison said the new guide for inspections could lead to longer inspections, which could tax the current staff of inspectors.

Garrison said the agency has requested state funding to create a special team of inspectors that focus on food processing plants. That funding request is under review by the state Legislature.

— Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.





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