ATLANTA — A sweeping new food safety measure proposed in the wake of the salmonella outbreak easily passed its first key legislative hurdle Wednesday as Georgia lawmakers sought to reassure antsy residents.
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The Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously approved a plan that would require food makers to alert state inspectors within 24 hours if a plant's internal tests show its products are contaminated.
The proposal was introduced after the salmonella outbreak was linked to the Peanut Corp. plant in Blakely, Ga. Investigators say the Lynchburg, Va.-based company knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.
State law did not require the company to share those test results, and state officials say they may have been able to stop the outbreak if they'd known about them sooner.
"If this bill had been in place six months ago, a red flag would have been raised," said Republican state Sen. John Bulloch, the committee chairman and the measure's sponsor. "I think we could have identified this plant had a problem."
Food safety experts, government groups and industry lobbies say they don't know of any other state that requires food manufacturers to share internal data.
The outbreak has sickened some 600 people, may be linked to as many as nine deaths and has resulted in one of the largest product recalls in the nation's history. Company owner Stewart Parnell refused to testify to Congress on Wednesday amid the disclosure that he urged his workers to ship bacteria-tainted products.
Video: Peanut plant manager pleads the fifth The Peanut Corp. faces a growing number of civil lawsuits and federal authorities have launched an investigation. Georgia lawmakers, also eager to show they are probing the outbreak, have set up committees and proposed legislation to tweak the state food network.
The bill, which now goes to the full Senate, also empowers Georgia agriculture officials to order plants to have their products tested at their own expense. And it allows state officials to set policy guiding how often the plants should test.
The proposal would exempt meat, poultry and other manufacturers under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's watch. Instead, it focuses on the thousands of other plants focused on the Food and Drug Administration's scrutiny.
Of course, there's no way to make certain that the companies are reporting the data. But those that are found withholding or concealing the reports could face felony charges that carry a prison sentence of up to five years.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin called for the changes in the aftermath of the outbreak, and has also urged Congress to adopt similar requirements.
"We will be the national leader in getting a report system to help us feel more safe," said Irvin. "What we did today was a positive step. And it will make Georgia a national leader."
Irvin also has been asking lawmakers to devote more funding to his department, which has some 60 food inspectors and 15 unfilled positions. But supporters of the proposal said it would allow the department to better stretch its resources.
"I think this would eliminate the possibility of a lot of other personnel," said Bulloch, "because this would raise the red flag."
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