updated 3/18/2009 4:59:27 PM ET 2009-03-18T20:59:27

After Georgia-made peanut products were named as the culprit in a nationwide salmonella outbreak, state lawmakers have moved quickly on a bill to make Georgia the first to require food makers to swiftly alert state inspectors if their internal tests show their products are tainted.

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The proposed food safety regulations, which would require the food processors to report the results within 24 hours, have moved rapidly through the Georgia Legislature in the wake of the outbreak that originated in a south Georgia peanut processing plant.

The House unanimously passed the changes Wednesday, weeks after the Senate adopted a similar proposal. The chambers will now hash out minor differences and plan to send a final version soon to Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Federal officials, food scientists, legal experts and industry groups cannot point to another state with similar requirements. And Georgia lawmakers say the new provision would make it the first state to have such a rule.

“It’s just amazing this wasn’t in place before. And it’s amazing it takes a law to get these people to do this,” said state Rep. Kevin Levitas, D-Atlanta. “In some ways, it’s good luck we haven’t had a Blakely before this.”

He is referring to the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga., that investigators say was at the center of the salmonella outbreak. They say the Virginia-based company knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.

SalmonellaState and federal law did not require the company to share those test results.

The outbreak has sickened hundreds and was linked to the deaths of as many as nine people. It’s also hurt peanut butter sales throughout the nation, a particularly devastating blow to Georgia, the nation’s leading peanut producing state.

The state’s peanut industry is estimated to employ 50,000 people and to have an annual estimated impact of $2.5 billion.

The measure empowers the Georgia Department of Agriculture to order more tests — at the processor’s expense — if necessary. It also sets up regulations aimed at encouraging more regular testing of the products.

Slideshow: Get a taste of food safety The proposal would exempt meat, poultry and other manufacturers that are the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead, it focuses on the 16,000 other Georgia plants focused under the Food and Drug Administration’s scrutiny.

State officials can’t be certain that the companies are reporting the data. But those that are found withholding, falsifying or concealing the reports could face felony charges that carry a prison sentence of up to five years and a $1,000 fine.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who aggressively sought the changes, said they would help bolster Georgia’s food safety network.

“When you go to the Legislature, you never say you get exactly what you sought,” said Irvin. “You get something you think will do the job. And this does give us the tools to do the job.”

Under the proposal, state agriculture officials would be required to craft rules establishing how frequently food processors must conduct testing. Only those manufacturers with a state-approved food safety plan would be exempt from the rules.

Supporters say the changes would have provided state inspectors the red flag they needed to detect problems at Peanut Corp. of America before the outbreak spread across the nation.

“It really is fundamental to food safety — 99.9 percent of the processors in Georgia already follow this bill,” said Levitas. “For those on the cusp, this may prevent another Blakely from happening again.”

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