Blakely peanut illness: Little has changed since scare

A year after outbreak, holes still exist in inspection safety net

The 74-year-old feels weaker than he did before he contracted salmonella food poisoning. He forgets more. He’s quit his job at a recycling plant. He can’t look at a jar of peanut butter without getting angry.

“I have good days and bad days,” said Ivester, who lives in Elbert County in northeast Georgia, across the state from the plant in Blakely where the tainted peanut butter originated. “I don’t want no peanut butter in my house.”

Since Ivester was sickened during one of the biggest food-borne illness outbreaks in the nation’s history, promises by Georgia and the federal government to get tough on food safety are mostly unfulfilled.

Georgia’s Legislature passed a law mandating new food testing regulations, but the bulk of them are still in the pipeline.

In Washington, food safety legislation is stuck in Congress, pushed to the Senate back burner by health care.

Meanwhile, criminal investigations into bankrupt Peanut Corp. of America, owner of the plant, and its top executives have produced no charges.

The salmonella outbreak that began in late 2008 sickened 700 others and was linked to nine deaths nationwide. Hundreds of food companies that used peanuts and peanut paste from the Blakely plant or a sister plant in Texas had to recall thousands of products.

The scare had Americans scouring their kitchens for all manner of peanut products to throw out and led to the shutdown of the Blakely plant, throwing 50 people out of work.

About 100 victims await their shares of a $12 million insurance settlement connected to the bankruptcy, but lawsuits by other victims against companies that used Peanut Corp.’s products are still pending.

“Nothing’s happened,” said Minnesota resident Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley, died from eating contaminated peanut butter traced to Peanut Corp. “It’s very frustrating.”

Advocates worry that more time passing lowers the chances of significant reform.

“It could peter out,” said Tony Corbo, of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch. “This has gotten off the radar.”

Others see progress. Michael Doyle, director of the food safety center at the University of Georgia, said he believes state officials “haven’t been ignoring it. ... I’ve learned to be patient, to get it right.”

Doyle said he understands the time it has taken to craft new regulations, now being reviewed by advocates and the food processing industry. State officials say new rules should be in place by the summer, though some will be phased in over time.

Meantime, food-borne illnesses continue to crop up. In the past month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued more than a dozen food recalls, including pine nuts and hazel nuts thought to contain salmonella and peanut butter thought to contain listeria, another potentially fatal bacteria.

Peanut industry representatives originally predicted the outbreak would cost the industry $1 billion, but the impact was much smaller, said Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission. Koehler said sales are back to pre-outbreak levels, though only after the industry spent tens of millions on advertising and public relations. Georgia supplies about 46 percent of the nation’s peanuts.

Spotty testing

Before the Peanut Corp. scandal, Georgia did not mandate that food producers test their products. The state did some tests during inspections, but they were often spotty. Even if a plant found salmonella in its own testing, it was not required to report it to the state.

Then came the peanut butter crisis. State inspection records revealed the plant had a history of rodents, roaches and sanitation problems, including unmarked chemical containers, dirt and grease buildup and gaps in doors large enough for rodents. Peanut Corp. records obtained by federal investigators showed the company had found salmonella in its products and still sold them a dozen times over two years.

The new regulations would help Georgia prevent, if not catch such activity, officials said.

They call for regular food testing by the plants and demand that processors report any contamination to the state within 24 hours. Plants must open internal records to inspectors and detail methods to ensure that any contamination is destroyed before a product is shipped.

The rules are the product of Senate Bill 80, signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue in May.

Some advocates worry, however, about an amendment adopted just before it passed, which could let companies bypass self-testing by submitting a “food safety plan” to the state.

Doyle, the UGA food safety expert, said it remains unclear how that amendment will be implemented. “If you can get around the product testing, then that defeats the purpose of the law,” he said.

‘We moved cautiously’

Oscar Garrison, assistant commissioner of consumer protection for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said the department must approve food safety plans companies submitted by companies. He expects the department will insist that many plants include self-testing as part of the plan.

“This is just a big challenge for a regulatory agency. We moved cautiously forward,” Garrison said.

Moving too quickly could result in unworkable rules, he said. Mandating frequent widespread testing could overwhelm the private labs that food processing plants use. The department also needed time to determine which foods are high risk versus low risk and apply the regulations accordingly, he said.

As soon as Perdue signed the bill, the Agriculture Department alerted about 750 food processing plants that if they already do their own testing, they must notify the state within 24 hours of any contamination. None have reported any contamination, Garrison said.

The state Legislature funded three new positions at the agency to focus on food plant safety. The Agriculture Department added another three workers to create a special inspection team for these plants. Each worker is developing expertise in certain foods, and the goal is to inspect every plant once or twice a year, Garrison said.

“Now every (state) inspection includes testing,” Garrison said. In the past, that was not the case.

Sen. Bill 80 exempted plants whose end product, including shelled peanuts, remains a raw agricultural product. But it would not exempt plants like the one in Blakely that process peanuts into butter or paste.

The draft regulations have added to those exemptions to include plants that produce products such as eggs, bottled water, poultry and shellfish, which would already be inspected by federal food agencies. Also, small businesses would not have to do their own testing.

Over the past year, state inspectors found one instance of contamination in a Georgia food processing plant. Kellogg Co.’s Eggo waffle plant in Atlanta was closed about three weeks in September after the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes was found in a sample of buttermilk waffles. The product was not shipped. The problem contributed to a brief national shortage of Eggo waffles.

Federal bill stalled

On the federal level, a coalition of 18 groups including grocery and food industries and consumer safety organizations wrote a letter this month to Senate leaders imploring them to vote soon on the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009. The House has passed its version of the bill, which would require food companies to develop food safety plans, require regular inspections of food plants and give the FDA more power.

Though both state and federal rules remain unfinished, some advocates say the peanut butter outbreak pushed efforts to better ensure food safety.

“I’d say we’re farther along than we were last year, but not nearly as far as we need to be,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the signatories on the letter to senators. “That outbreak last year was a poster child for the dire need for stronger laws and better enforcement tools.”

As for possible criminal charges, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman said the agency dropped its investigation last year and left it to federal authorities. Federal agencies ranging from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the FBI to the U.S. Attorney in Macon declined to comment.

Families of victims waver between frustration and outrage. The primary target of their anger: Stewart Parnell, the Peanut Corp. chief executive. When he appeared before Congress last February he declined to answer questions about e-mails and other information that investigators say indicated he knowingly ordered contaminated peanut products sent to buyers.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney handling lawsuits for about 45 victims, said, “In 17 years of litigating every major food-borne illness outbreak in the U.S., I have not seen a clearer situation that demanded criminal prosecution.”

Parnell declined to speak with the AJC for this story. One of his lawyers, W. William Gust, said investigators have not contacted Parnell in about six months.

Parnell remains for the most part unemployed, Gust said. “He should not be judged on mere allegations,” Parnell’s other attorney, Thomas Bondurant, said in a prepared statement. “Mr. Parnell never intentionally harmed anyone and looks forward to a swift resolution to this matter.”

In Georgia, state Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta) has submitted legislation to make it a felony for a food processor to knowingly introduce tainted food into the market.

Almer, the Minnesotan who lost his mother more than a year ago, said he sees a lack of action so far by lawmakers and investigators, which “means there’s still no accountability.

“And it means this sort of thing is still probably going on someplace else.”

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