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Georgia Senate panel weighs food safety bill

/ Source: The Associated Press

Georgia lawmakers are wrestling with whether to adopt new food safety rules after a state peanut plant was linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people nationwide and may have caused as many as eight deaths.

The Senate Agriculture Committee debated a measure Monday that would require food makers to alert state inspectors within a day if a plant's internal tests show its products are contaminated. The bill would also force the companies to conduct the tests at least once a year to supplement surprise state and federal inspections.

The proposal is a response to the salmonella outbreak linked to a Peanut Corp. of America 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.

"This gives us the tool to give us the red flag if a facility has some problems," said state Sen. John Bulloch, the chairman of the committee and the measure's sponsor.

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.

Kathy Kuzava, president of the Georgia Food Industry Association, said the public needs to be reassured that private industry and the government are bolstering food safety efforts.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin called for the changes in the aftermath of the outbreak, but has tempered his remarks lately by urging Congress to adopt similar requirements.

"We could have a strong law in Georgia, but if it's not followed by Congress, we could find ourselves in a position of driving out business," Irvin told members of a House food safety panel.

His department came under fire after a state inspector who toured the plant in October noted only two minor violations, but less than three months later federal agents who swarmed the plant found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems.

Irvin defended his inspectors Monday, saying the state didn't have the resources to match the federal agents. He said his inspector spent half a day probing the plant on foot, while federal agents spent about two weeks there and had a lift to inspect the roof.

He is also pressuring lawmakers grappling with $2.2 billion in cuts to Georgia's budget to bolster funding to his department, which has some 60 food inspectors and 15 unfilled positions.