Despite a tough new food safety law and more than a half million spent annually on inspections and lab work, Georgia is not achieving the food safety improvement at the state’s 740 food processing plants that its lawmakers seek.
Perhaps, some say, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black did not get the memo about how serious the Georgia Legislature is about not wanting a repeat of the poison peanut butter produced three years ago by a plant in Blakely, GA.
Black, a former president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, was elected after the Peanut Corporation of America plant produced peanut butter and peanut paste contaminated with Salmonella, killing nine people and sickening hundreds of others nationwide.
Georgia lawmakers reacted to the outbreak by passing a law requiring the state’s food processors to conduct regular internal pathogen tests and report any positive results to the Department of Agriculture now led by Black.
But in a performance audit released on June 29, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts found that just seven positive results were reported during the first 30 months of the program.
As soon as the audit hit the street, Black said he was taking steps to revamp inspections and testing.
“To improve its overall effectiveness and efficiency,” the audit says, “the department should develop a risk-based inspection process.”
The inspection unit’s goal is to conduct a routine inspection of each processing facility every six months.
“However, this goal is not based on risk assessment, and the goal is not being currently met. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other states we contacted, using a risk-based system to identify facilities for inspection provides assurance that those processors pose the greatest risk to health are inspected more frequently.”
As for internal testing and reporting, the audit found that food processors are 25 times less likely to find positive results than when DOA inspectors take their own environmental samples.
Auditors conducted 11 company inspections with DOA officials, and found that 6 operations were not doing testing for one reason or another.
DOA did begin making some changes while the audits were under way. It hired three additional inspectors, changed the checklist used during inspections, and began taking risk into account for scheduling inspections.
Black, a Republican, was elected in 2010, taking over DOA in January 2011. Georgia’s new food safety law was passed in 2009 by bipartisan majorities after the state’s entire peanut industry suffered financial losses due to the peanut butter outbreak.
DOA’s inspection unit is located in the Food Safety Division. Georgia charges annual licensing fees based on risk, ranging from $100 to $300 a year.
The Georgia Food Law has required food processors to submit their positive test results to DOA since May 2010. High risk facilities are required to test twice a month, medium risk plants monthly and low risk processors quarterly.
Georgia has 54 food processors in its highest risk category.
DOA has nine inspectors who are take a little over two hours on average to conduct an inspection, not counting travel time.© Food Safety News