Georgia will not let a future Peanut Corporation of America get away with knowingly releasing contaminated food to the market.

A key lawmaker wants to make it a felony for a food processor to knowingly release contaminated food for public consumption.

georgia_state_prison.jpgA bill to make food processors subject to felony prosecution is being pre-filed for the 2010 Georgia Assembly by Rep. Kevin Levitas, D-Atlanta.    He is a former DeKalb County assistant District Attorney and former special assistant U.S. attorney.

Rep. Levitas told Food Safety News that existing Georgia law needs improving because to bring a state prosecution could be like trying to “put a square peg in a round hole.”  He says a law specifically designed for  such a situation is needed in Georgia.

Himself a former member a state-federal prosecution task force that ended up convicting a county sheriff, Levitas  says he would not surprised if  PCA  faces federal criminal charges.  He said federal prosecutors like to take their time, but when they are finished they are thoroughly prepared to go to trial.

His bill would require Georgia food processors to keep written food safety plans at their plants.  Any knowing release of contaminated food that results in injury or death would be punishable by imprisonment for one to 20 years.

“It sends out a strong message that Georgia stands for a high standard and we won’t tolerate anybody who won’t maintain those high standards, Levitas said.  “If you don’t want to maintain them, then don’t process food and don’t grow it in the State of Georgia.”

The Atlanta lawmaker also predicts the Georgia food industry will line up behind his bill. The Georgia peanut industry suffered significant financial losses from the PCA-induced Salmonella outbreak, and has only recently begun to recover.

Levitas serves of the House Judiciary Committee.  He plans to have the bill ready when the Georgia General Assembly convenes in January.

The U.S. House Commerce & Energy Committee last spring disclosed a series of emails from PCA President Stewart Parnell to his peanut processing plant in Blakely, GA.   Those emails seemed to show Parnell knew his company’s peanut products were contaminated with Salmonella, but he nevertheless ordered their release into the market.

A nationwide Salmonella outbreak followed, resulting in nine deaths and more than 700 officially confirmed illnesses.   Food makers using the company’s peanut butter and paste were forced to recall nearly 4,000 individual products and PCA filed for bankruptcy.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, recently told the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee that PCA remains a subject of both federal and state criminal prosecutions.

Peanut Corporation of America had operations in Virginia, Texas, and Georgia.  Its corporate headquarters and its bankruptcy filing are in Lynchburg, VA.  There’s been no sign of any of those states conducting an investigation on their own.  Earlier in the year after it searched PCA’s plants in both Georgia and Texas, the FBI put out a statement that it was assisting FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI).

FDA has responded to recent inquires about any criminal investigations by referring reporters to the U.S. Attorney’s in Atlanta, and they are not talking either.

Levitas sees his bill as a way of being ready for those times when the  federal government does not do anything.  “We certainly don’t need to be spending state resources to duplicate what they’re doing on the federal level,” he says. “If the feds decide–hey, we’re not interested in doing this–that’s the time for us to step in.”