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When food safety crisis hit, Perdue had to prepare for next one

Former Gov. Sonny Purdue is president-elect Donald Trump's pick for secretary of agriculture.

Former Gov. Sonny Purdue is president-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of agriculture.

This century’s most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness came out of the state of Georgia while secretary of agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue was governor, and there was not much he could do about it.

After King Nut peanut butter made by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) was implicated in the deadly nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium, investigators from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) descended on Blakely, GA.

The “Peanut Proud” town of less than 5,000 near the state’s southern border was the site of the PCA plant that made King Nut and other peanut butter products. The FDA and GDA investigators, who began inspecting the plant on Jan. 9, 2009, were soon joined by epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The state and federal investigators “found multiple possibilities for Salmonella contamination, including evidence of rain and other water leakage into storage areas used for roasted peanuts, practices that allowed for cross-contamination between raw and roasted peanuts, and uncertainty as to whether the peanut roaster routinely reached a temperature sufficient to kill salmonella,” according to the inspection reports.

Then-Gov. Perdue, at the request of Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to join the inquiry into PCA, which had peanut processing facilities in three states.

Perdue instructed the GBI to investigate to determine if the state had any jurisdiction regarding violations at the Blakely plant. Some Georgia lawmakers favored leaving the matter in the federal government’s hands.

The GBI fairly quickly concluded that state laws did not cover what happened at PCA — the company knowingly shipped products after tests found they were contaminated with a potentially deadly pathogen.

Perdue shifted his attention and that of Georgia’s legislators away from the PCA case. They focused on preparing for the future with a first-of-it’s-kind state law that requiring food makers to notify the state within 24 hours when tests show products are tainted. Failure to provide such notice became a criminal offense when Perdue signed a bill into law a couple months after the PCA plant was inspected.

Act 98 became part of Georgia state law on May 1, 2009. It empowers the state’s agriculture commissioner in numerous ways, especially in terms of being able to demand records and access to various properties. Businesses under the jurisdiction of USDA inspectors are exempt from the Georgia law.

blakelypcaplant09_406x250In February 2013, the U.S. Justice Department filed indictments with 76 federal felony counts against five executives and managers involved with PCA, including owner Stewart Parnell.

They were convicted a year later and are all currently in federal prisons serving a total of 62 years. The Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak caused by the contaminated peanut butter sickened thousands and killed at least nine people.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate as president-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of agriculture, Perdue will become responsible for a number of USDA entities, including the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) with its $1 billion budget and 10,000 employees. Most of the FSIS employees work inside private processing plants around the country. The sub-agency of USDA is responsible for the safety of the nation’s meat, catfish, poultry and eggs.

Reaction to Perdue’s appointment, the last of 15 Cabinet members to be named by Trump, is turning out to be pretty positive with mainstream farm and agricultural groups.

United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel:
“We congratulate Gov. Perdue on his selection as the next Secretary of Agriculture. We have high regard for his past work with our Georgia fruit and vegetable industry, and are confident he will bring a passion and commitment to supporting agriculture, and helping us deliver healthy foods to all Americans. We anticipate meeting with Gov. Perdue soon, and working with him on critical issues such as securing an adequate workforce through immigration reform and a new guest worker program, bolstering free and fair trade, serving the neediest Americans through federal feeding programs, and more.”

National Association of State Ag Departments President and Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture & Forestry Mike Strain:
“We congratulate Gov. Perdue and welcome the opportunity to work together.  The next Farm Bill, expanding export opportunities for U.S. producers, and the fostering of a regulatory environment that allows agriculture to thrive are key priorities we look forward to partnering on with Gov. Perdue. Most importantly, we look forward to working cooperatively, as state and federal partners, to advance the success of farmers and ranchers who feed families in the U.S. and beyond.”

American Soybean Association President Ron Moore:
“Congratulations to Gov. Perdue. USDA touches the lives of every American, and it is among the most crucial government functions for farmers across the United States. For soybean farmers, USDA serves us in so many ways. From working to implement a viable risk management framework to helping expand our markets overseas, to investing in agricultural research here at home, these are critical elements of the farm economy, and we look forward to working alongside USDA under Secretary Perdue to ensure that the department continues to serve American soybean farmers in the most effective manner possible.”

American Feed Industry Association President and CEO Joel G. Newman:
“The American Feed Industry Association is pleased with President-elect Donald Trump’s latest, and final, cabinet selection — former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue as secretary of agriculture. AFIA works with USDA on a broad slate of issues such as trade and implementation of the farm bill. We believe Gov. Perdue’s political and agriculture-related background make him a sound fit for the role. Gov. Perdue holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine, and following his service as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, he became a successful small business owner, concentrating in agribusiness and transportation. We look forward to working closely with the new agriculture secretary, assisting him and his staff on animal food-related topics, and how our industry relates to other agriculture sectors and to consumers. This will be particularly important as Congress, the administration and industry come together to draft and enact the new farm bill.”

National Chicken Council President Mike Brown
“Gov. Perdue has a strong record as two-term chief executive of Georgia and is acquainted with a wide array of agriculture commodities, from chicken and peanuts to cotton and timber. As a veterinarian, agribusiness owner and a governor who established an agricultural advisory committee in Georgia, he understands and appreciates the importance of American agriculture both here and abroad. He is a welcomed choice from the ‘Broiler Belt.’ We hope he is confirmed expeditiously so we can begin work with the department on the many issues of importance to chicken producers.”

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