Special Report: "Food Dangers" by Jennifer Emert - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Special Report: "Food Dangers" by Jennifer Emert

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By Jennifer Emert - bio | email

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - The nation's largest food recall stemming from a Blakely, Georgia peanut processing plant shows just how widespread a single problem can be.

The FDA and Georgia Department of Agriculture are responsible for inspecting thousands of food locations. They've told us they're understaffed, but a supplemental budget will now give the Department of Agriculture an additional six employees.

New legislation, waiting for Governor Sonny Perdue's signature, also promises to put tougher requirements on Georgia's food processors to keep the food we eat safe.

This year's salmonella scare has left south Georgia farmers with a dilemma, plant fewer peanuts acres or change crops. Whatever the decision, food safety is key.

"We've got to start at a grower level, and work all the way through it make sure we have the cleanest, clear our equipment to be sure that we don't have any left over dust, dirt and left over peanuts from the year before that may have rotted," said peanut grower Armond Morris.

Growers say the recent scare wasn't their fault, but they're willing to make what changes they can. "Once we dig the peanuts, how we handle them from there, looking at making sure the peanut combines are cleaned out, that the wagons are clean, that we don't have any cross contamination things like that," said Georgia Peanut Commission Chairman Don Koehler. But growers are only a small part of the process.

"I think we need to do a better job of inspections, we need to be sure we don't allow this to happen again," said Morris.

The question is can it? In looking at the state's food safety program WALB made an open records request and obtained inspection reports for 27 peanut processors in Georgia over the last two years.

Shockingly, we found repeat violations at one peanut processor who received warning letters for nearly a year on a problem that led to four totes of cooked peanuts and 16 totes of scrap for bird feed being destroyed.

The reports we were given seemed haphazard, some inspectors checked previous problems, others didn't, samples were taken from some plants and not others, but some still have a hard time finding fault with the Department's of Agriculture.

"It's hard for me to fault the Department of Ag when I look at the fact that we have 16,000 food processing facilities in this state, and we have 60 inspectors to cover them," said Koehler.

This is exactly why the Department of Agriculture is changing the way they police food processors by reorganizing their inspectors. Changes coming in April will now dedicate five inspectors and a supervisor to the state's 1,000 food processing facilities.

"Be able to do a little bit more in depth investigations in those, follow the procedures, the flow of the product through the facility and spend some extra time on sampling and concentrate more on sampling and those type things in those facilities," said Oscar Garrison of the Department of Agriculture.

Even though the department says it gives inspectors extra time, if five inspectors split the work evenly, they'll be responsible for inspecting 200 plants a piece. "It is a lot of work, as a regulator I could always use more resources,' said Garrison.

And how qualified are these inspectors? "When you look at a 20 year veteran of this department, their major may not have been in biology or chemistry. But when you really look at the specialized training they've had through FDA courses and USDA courses, and courses offered by the University of Georgia and various other specialized training courses," said Garrison.

Department leaders claim the change will give inspectors more time in plants like PCA to find problems like, bags smeared with peanut butter and a black crud, a leaking roof, and this time access to a company's internal lab tests. "It will keep us very busy, but had we had access to the records and had Senate Bill 80 been into affect and the operation would have had to make us aware of the positive tests that he had, everything could have changed on this one," said Garrison. 

Sponsor of Senator Bill 80, Republican John Bulloch of Ochlocknee, says the bill requires a plant's records be kept for at least two years and allows the department to dictate how often samples are tested.

"The commissioner shall establish by rules and regulations the number of tests and the frequency of tests that a company would have to perform,"  Bulloch said.

Newly passed legislation will also require companies like Peanut Corporation of America to put together a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan. "It basically outlines what the facilities going to do, what their cleaning procedures are, what their kill step for any pathogens are and then the testing regiment they will follow," said Garrison. 

The law has to be broad enough to cover all food processing plants. "If you go to a vegetable processing facility that chops lettuce and salads and different things, their kill process is utilizing an odorless tasteless chorine solution, and the kill process at a peanut butter, roasted peanut facility is a roaster, and in this bill the pathogen step which is the kill step, they have the right to inspect the records of that step," Bulloch said.

They'll still be relying on companies like PCA to provide all the necessary documentation which has growers calling on Georgia's food producers to step up. "The responsibility still falls back to all of us in the food processing and food production business to be sure that we always remember that the consumer is our number one concern," said Garrison.

While the state feels they've taken the necessary steps to sure up Georgia's food supply, they're sure federal legislation likely coming from the Food and Drug Administration will add to what Georgia's done, to make sure what you buy at the store is safe and not, tainted food.

The investigation of Peanut Corporation is far from over. During our interview with the Department of Agriculture, Commissioner Tommy Irvin told us he wants to see the company prosecuted for their actions.

He also said its important for the department to continue their investigation and determine exactly how salmonella was introduced into the peanut butter and paste at PCA. He says knowing that helps better protect the food supply.

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