ATLANTA — Tight state budgets have led some of the biggest farm states to leave dozens of food inspection jobs vacant at a time when hundreds have been sickened by a nationwide salmonella outbreak tied to a filthy peanut processing plant.
Georgia, the site of the plant, has about 60 inspectors for some 16,000 sites, while budget cuts have forced the state agriculture department to keep 15 inspector positions vacant.
California, Texas and Florida are among other states facing the same problems while food experts say the federal government relies increasingly on states to monitor the nation's food supply.
"You can only shift the pawns on the table so many times before the game catches up with you," Georgia deputy Agriculture Commissioner Oscar Garrison told legislators earlier this month while asking for more money to hire inspectors.
The salmonella outbreak linked to Peanut Corp. of America has sickened hundreds, may have caused nine deaths and prompted one of the largest food recalls in the nation's history. Federal investigators have launched a criminal investigation, and Virginia-based Peanut Corp. faces mounting lawsuits and a bankruptcy filing.
Food safety experts warn each loss of an inspector increases the possibility that food problems could elude detection.
Inspectors spread too thin
In the Georgia salmonella case, a state inspector found only minor problems when she probed the Blakely plant in October for less than two hours; less than three months later federal agents found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems.
In Texas, eight of 42 manufactured food inspector positions are vacant, leaving 34 people to inspect about 21,000 facilities, from distributors to food salvage operations.
That's about one inspector for every 618 facilities, said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. So inspectors have to focus on sites that make higher-risk foods or those with reported problems.
The agency was lobbying to add seven more positions even before a Peanut Corp. plant in Plainview tested positive for salmonella and was shut down.
"I'd love to say, we'd like to get to (every facility) once every 12 to 15 months," he said. "Are we able to always? No, it's sometimes longer."
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Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has left open 12 of its 129 inspector positions open this year. But agency spokesman Terry McElroy said the cuts will not have as great an impact because Florida has been adding positions in recent years.
"You do the best you can," McElroy said. "We're confident that under the circumstances we're able to do the job effectively."
Food safety a tough sell
California agricultural officials say inspector cuts or vacancies are likely as the state grapples with a shortfall that could be as large as $42 billion.
Almost every state legislature in the country is staring down budget deficits and scraping funds for schools, roads and other public safety areas, like prisons and police. Food safety is a tough sell.
"It's getting pretty dire out there," said Doug Farquhar, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "With the salmonella scare, you'd think that now would be the time they'd say we need to invest in food safety. But the opposite is going on."
The belt-tightening comes at an inconvenient time.
The federal government increasingly relies on food safety inspections performed by states, where budgets for inspections have remained stagnant and overburdened officials have less training than their federal counterparts.
Gerald Wojtala, president of the Association of Food and Drug Officials, said the nonprofit is now surveying food programs across the nation to determine how much the burden has shifted.
He said surveys in 2001 and 2003 showed state and local food safety agencies conduct more than 95 percent of food safety inspections.
For officials in Georgia, the deadly outbreak has led to some soul searching.
Legislators have floated proposals to deputize county health officials so they can quickly pursue food safety tips.
And Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said his department will focus more on food safety inspections and less on other duties, such as monitoring out-of-date foods. Leading lawmakers say they hope to boost inspections, despite budget cuts.
Inspectors are "referees of the food game," said Joseph Hotchkiss, a food science professor at Cornell University who once worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"There's no way for us as individuals to know much about our food — how it's manufactured and prepared — without these people we hire. And with fewer of those people, that could in general result in an increased risk."
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