updated 3/10/2009 6:33:35 PM ET 2009-03-10T22:33:35

Spurred by a deadly salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut processing plant, the state's lawmakers have sought to toughen food safety standards they say could have stemmed the spread of the illness.

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The House unanimously adopted a proposal Tuesday that gives state agriculture officials power to deputize local health inspectors so they can quickly probe potential trouble spots. The state Department of Agriculture complained loudly after the outbreak that its 60 inspectors are stretched thin, trying to monitor some 16,000 sites throughout Georgia.

The House plan now goes to the Senate, which has already adopted its own food safety proposal in the wake of the salmonella outbreak. Lawmakers there approved a plan requiring food makers to alert state inspectors within 24 hour hours if a plant's internal tests show its products are tainted.

Food safety experts say that the measure, which is now pending in the House, would make Georgia the first state in the nation to require such internal reporting to the government if it becomes law.

Both proposals, along with an additional $40,000 for inspectors in this year's spending plan, are designed to help detect problems that escaped notice at Peanut Corp. of America's plant in Blakely, Ga. Investigators say the company knowingly shipped salmonella-contaminated peanut products even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.

The outbreak led to one of the biggest food recalls in U.S. history and forced the Lynchburg, Va.-based company to file for bankruptcy as it faced a growing number of civil lawsuits and the specter of criminal charges. Hundreds have been sickened, and the bacteria was linked to as many as nine deaths.

SalmonellaState health officials in Texas last month confirmed salmonella was also found in peanut meal at a Plainview, Texas, plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America. The plant had voluntarily closed Feb. 9 after a private lab sample showed likely salmonella contamination. Texas health officials later ordered a recall of products from the plant.

Georgia House lawmakers say their proposal would enlist more people to monitor food makers — large and small — around the state.

It would allow Georgia's agriculture commissioner to instruct local health officials, such as those working for a county health department, to check out possible cases of food contamination. They would not be allowed to shut down food operations, but could alert state or federal officials to anything "suspicious," said state Rep. Terry England, the measure's sponsor.

"It allows for another set of eyes to be on the premises at any given time," said England, R-Auburn.

Supporters of the proposals say they are key to restoring confidence in Georgia's powerful agriculture industry. The peanut business alone employs 50,000 people with an annual economic impact of $2.5 billion.

But the measures are also aimed at bringing needed improvement to state food inspections. 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.

"Since we've been dealing with the peanut problem, we've often heard that inspections are just a snapshot in time," said state Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton. "This would add to the number of snapshots that we get to take."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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