How a contamination case could shape Perdue's food safety policy at USDA
- When he was governor of Georgia, President Trump's U.S. Department of Agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue dealt with the century's most deadly foodborne illness outbreak in 2009, according to an article in Food Business News. The case provides insight into how Perdue might shape food safety policy if confirmed as U.S. agriculture secretary.
- After several people were sickened with salmonella after eating peanut butter made by Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, GA, the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into the company's plant. Perdue ordered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to see if the state had any jurisdiction over problems at the plant.
- Investigators found the company was aware of contamination and shipped the product anyway, but that state law did not cover what happened at the plant. Georgia then passed a law that would require manufacturers to immediately notify the state of any contaminated products, making failure to do so a criminal offense.
Since the news of Perdue's nomination broke, most of the attention has focused on his agribusiness ties and support for trade partnerships while serving as Georgia's governor. But Perdue also played a role in dealing with the deadly salmonella outbreak in his state, which ended with prison sentences of 20 years or more for the brothers in charge of the Peanut Corporation of America.
In the investigation of the sprawling contamination case, which killed nine people and sickened at least 700, Georgia officials found that the only state-level charges they could bring against company executives were misdemeanors and carried only minor penalties. State legislators quickly sprung into action, drafting legislation that stiffened penalties for such offenses and gave the state's agriculture commissioner stronger investigative powers.
The peanut butter case ushered in a new era for the food industry. Before this case, company officials rarely faced prosecution for contaminated products, but the FDA has increasingly used criminal charges to deter the food industry from non-compliance with food safety regulations, according to food safety lawyer Shawn Stevens. The Georgia peanut butter case became a model for that approach to food safety.
Perdue himself did not propose the legislation strengthening Georgia's ability to act on food contamination, but his quick action showed that he was aware of its importance. If Perdue is confirmed as the head of the agency that includes the Food Safety and Inspection Service, he may be more inclined to hold off proposed budget cuts and continue to strengthen FSIS as a result of his experience in Georgia.
- Food Safety News When food safety crisis hit, Perdue had to prepare for next one
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