Special Report: Georgia Crops - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports


Special Report: Georgia Crops

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – The sign in front of the former Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, GA is now empty.   The doors have been shut now for more than a year, but it left behind more than just an empty building.  Local residents were out jobs, nine people died, hundreds were injured and the farming industry continues to face recovery.

"We were very upset that this happened in our own backyard," says Mike Newberry.

Newberry is a fourth generation farmer.  The Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Georgia, linked to the 2009 salmonella outbreak is less than 10 miles from Newberry's Hillside Farms in Arlington.

"Apparently here, we were dealing with a situation where somebody was cutting a corner," says Newberry.

A cut Newberry says was costly.

"Certainly we saw our markets decline, anytime we see our markets decline that means we can't plant quite as many acres and the price has dropped some."

Despite that, Newberry says things soon started to rebound.

"That was just different than we thought would happen after the salmonella issue," says Newberry.

The recall hit in the midst of the country's recession, which you'd think would pose even bigger problems, but Newberry says it was actually a plus.

"As people become hard pressed for money, they stop spending on expensive things and start looking for things that are less expensive and there are few protein sources that are any less expensive than peanut butter."

In fact, Newberry says the entire industry continues to move forward after suffering a sting from what happened at PCA.

"Right after that, we decided in our community to rally back. We certainly didn't do those things ignoring the fact that nine people lost their lives and other people got very ill from that," Newberry says.

Michael Thomas, a Stone Mountain Resident, says he got salmonella from a tainted jar in the 2007 Peter Pan recall.

"I woke up with dry heaves and severe stomach cramps, something like you would never experience or expect," says Thomas.

So Thomas says he was more than disappointed to hear about the recall two years later.

"Like when it happened, we got big apologies that it would never happen again, and it happened 70 miles away from the same plant that I got poisoned from," says Thomas referring to the ConAgra plant in Sylvester, GA.

Thomas' story has been quoted in congressional hearings and the subject of several articles, including one in the January 2010 edition of Arthritis Today.

"Ultimately, I want larger, responsible companies that are in charge of our nutrition to stop poisoning us in favor of their profit margins," says Thomas.

Thomas is also part of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition, a group of victims and advocates including Consumers Union, The Center for Science in Public Interest and the Pew Charitable Trust.

Their goal is to get an overhaul of federal laws regarding food safety.  Right now, there are two such bills floating in Congress.

They call for tougher testing and inspections, plus the Food and Drug Administration would get mandatory recall authority.

"We couldn't wait here in Georgia on the federal bill to pass," says Oscar Garrison.  He is an Assistant Commissioner with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, he oversees the Consumer Protection Division.

"We're the first state to require testing on these products," says Garrison.

The recently passed bill (Senate Bill 80) requires plants to test more often, based on risk.

"If a company finds a positive, they've got to report it to us as well as the FDA within 24 hours," Garrison says.

Also, unlike current federal law, that's regardless of whether the product has been shipped or is still in house.

Garrison says they've also beefed up inspections.

There are 63 inspectors that are responsible for food sales establishments and five-and a half positions are dedicated solely to food processing plants.

Like testing, inspections are done based on risk.

"Obviously, someone producing cotton candy should be inspected less than someone producing peanut butter right now."

Garrison says, either way they take all inspections extremely serious.

"You've got to do that inspection when you go in as if you're fixing to eat a meal out of that facility or your family's fixing to eat out of that facility."

But even with new precautions in place, everyone we talked to says nothing is 100 percent.

"No amount of law can protect us, human integrity at some point in time has to come into play," says Newberry.

"We don't have a sterile food supply, we don't want a sterile food supply, we want a safe food supply," adds Garrison.

Safe, so that what Thomas says happened to him, doesn't happen to anyone else.

"It's not enough and it has to stop," says Thomas.

Pew Health Group, Food Safety Campaign Director Sandra Eskin says they're hopeful congress will act on the pending legislation before recessing for Memorial Day.

A house bill passed last summer and the senate bill, known as the Food Safety Modernization Act has bipartisan support.

Advocates like Eskin are asking consumers who want to weigh in on the issue to contact their senators.

Both Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss are supporters of the bill.

The following is a timeline of major food recalls.

September 14, 2006
FDA warns consumers to avoid eating bagged spinach due to threat of e-coli contamination

September 22, 2006
Pacific Coast Fruit Company Recalls Spinach Salad Products and Pizza Due to Health Risk

February 14, 2007
FDA warns consumers not to eat certain jars of Peter Pan and Great Value Peanut Butter, could be tainted with salmonella. Products linked to plant in Sylvester, GA.

March 15, 2007
Melamine Pet Food Recall: FDA finds contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China and used as ingredients in pet food.

July 18, 2007

Augusta based Castleberry Food Announces Recall of Canned Meat and Chili Sauce Products

January 13, 2009
Peanut Corporation of America Announces Recall of Peanut Paste Made in Georgia Plant

January 22, 2009
FDA Expands Recall to Include Pet Food Products

April 27, 2009
U.S. Marshals seize $34,500 worth of PCA peanuts and products containing PCA peanuts at Westco/Westcott because of possible Salmonella contamination.

March 4, 2010
FDA identifies Salmonella Tennessee in one company's supply of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP).

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