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Rep. Deal joins House panel probing salmonella outbreak from peanut plant

POSTED: February 5, 2009 11:48 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Gainesville Republican, is one of two Georgians on a House subcommittee that will hear testimony next week regarding the salmonella outbreak that is believed to have originated from a peanut processing plant in Blakely.

Deal was named at the beginning of the current Congress to the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is joined on the panel by U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.

The hearing, which will take place Tuesday in Washington, will include testimony from Assistant Commissioner Terry Coleman of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The Georgia department is under contract with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct inspections of processing plants like the one owned by Peanut Corp. of America in the southwest Georgia town.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s senior U.S. senator, Saxby Chambliss heard testimony Thursday on Capitol Hill from

FDA officials that food-makers and state safety inspectors are allowed to keep tests results secret. That keeps federal health officials in the dark even when products have been contaminated by salmonella or other dangerous bacteria.

Federal law does not require reporting of contaminants if companies receive private test results showing them or states find them in their inspections, said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, food safety director for the Food and Drug Administration.

“That’s one of the very serious loopholes we need to plug,” said Chambliss, a Republican and the committee’s ranking minority member.

“I’d like to see some people go to jail,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said during the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. The outbreak has sickened more than 550 people and killed at least eight.

Sundlof defended the FDA’s handling of the current outbreak, but also noted gaps in the country’s food safety system that hamper the agency’s efforts. The FDA learned only weeks ago that the Peanut Corp. of America had received a series of private tests dating back to 2007 showing salmonella in products from the Georgia plant, but later shipped the items after obtaining negative test results.

“We would like to have as much information as possible” from food makers, Sundlof said.

Leahy said food manufacturers should face possible jail time and other tough penalties to beef up compliance with federal food safety rules. “Fines won’t do it,” he said.

Sundlof pointed out that a federal criminal investigation of the outbreak is under way.

Also Thursday, the Department of Agriculture suspended Peanut Corp. from participating in government contract programs for at least a year. Secretary Tom Vilsack also removed Stewart Parnell, president of the company, from USDA’s Peanut Standards Board.

Peanut Corp. has denied any wrongdoing in the outbreak and has said its Blakely plant had received regular visits and inspections from state and federal authorities in 2008 and had gotten a “superior” rating from an independent inspection.

Sundlof told senators the FDA was hot on the trail of the Georgia processor even before they were certain that peanuts were to blame for hundreds of illnesses.

The first signs of the outbreak were detected in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But disease detectives initially suspected chicken was the culprit in clusters of salmonella infections that states were reporting.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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