Georgia Aims To Hold Food Processors Accountable As a result of the salmonella outbreak at a Georgia peanut plant, state officials are drafting a bill that would require food processors to report self tests. If Georgia passes the law, it could be among the strictest in the nation.
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Georgia Aims To Hold Food Processors Accountable

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Georgia Aims To Hold Food Processors Accountable

Georgia Aims To Hold Food Processors Accountable

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. In Georgia, leading politicians, including the governor, are endorsing a plan that would set strict testing regulations for food processors. The call follows a salmonella outbreak at the Peanut Corporation of America plant in the town of Blakely. Georgia Public Broadcasting's John Sepulvado has the story.

JOHN SEPULVADO: Several former Peanut Corporation of America workers say the Blakely facility was filthy. Former plant janitor Anne Bristow(ph) says birds routinely flew into the facility through large holes in the roof. And when they did, it was her job to tell a manager.

Ms. ANNE BRISTOW(ph) (Former Plant Janitor, Peanut Corporation of America): If I see a bird in the building, I go and tell Raymond. Raymond, there's a bird in the warehouse because they normally be in the warehouse in the box room. He would get his little pellet gun and go out and he shoot.

SEPULVADO: Bristow and another former employee, David James(ph), say 55-gallon drums were used to collect rainwater that fell through the roofs into the facility.

Mr. DAVID JAMES (Former employee, Peanut Corporation of America): Every time it rain, it'd still be raining inside of it. They didn't want to spend no money to fix the roof.

SEPULVADO: Outside of the plant, the roof is visibly water damaged and rusted. Food and Drug Administration records show that roof problems, along with freezer and pest control issues, date as far back as 2001.

And investigators say, PCA plant managers found salmonella in products at least a dozen times and still shipped the batches out to consumers. FDA officials say the company shopped around for favorable test results before releasing the products.

The company denies those charges, but many in the industry worry those allegations are damaging Georgia's entire agricultural sector. So to help restore confidence, Governor Sonny Perdue has publicly promised more accountability in food safety.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Republican, Georgia): When people violate that sacred chain of food safety control, they will be prosecuted and held accountable.

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. PERDUE: It is too important not to.

SEPULVADO: But to hold firms accountable before an outbreak, the state would have to know when companies found harmful pathogens in their product. Currently, there are no laws requiring notification.

Enter Georgia State Senator John Bulloch. He's a peanut farmer and with the blessing of key lawmakers, including the governor, he's authored a bill mandating testing. Contaminated product would have to be reported to the agricultural department in 24 hours. Bulloch says that disclosure will help keep manufacturers honest.

State Senator JOHN BULLOCH (Republican, Georgia): I'm a consumer of peanut products. I'm a grower of peanuts. I'm on both ends of it. I've got a three-year-old grandson. He loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We're trying to do what we can to ensure that this doesn't happen, again.

SEPULVADO: As members of Congress learned recently, mandatory testing regulations are rare. So far, food lobbying groups haven't commented on Georgia's plan. But in the past, those groups helped sink similar proposals in other states.

Mr. BILL MARLER (Food Litigation Lawyer, Seattle): Companies are going to be very wary of disclosing information that says my product has been tested, and it's contaminated.

SEPULVADO: That's Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler. He's representing consumers in the lawsuit against PCA. Marler says food testing regulations need to extend beyond Georgia.

Mr. MARLER: I think you need to require it of all high risk or moderate risk food manufacturing companies throughout the United States.

SEPULVADO: And as Georgia considers food testing regulations, Marler will have a chance to make his pitch to Congress for nationwide testing. He's taking some of his clients to Washington, D.C. this week as they testify about how the outbreak has impacted them. For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado in Rome, Georgia.

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