UGA expert says food rules overdue

The peanut-related salmonella outbreak two years ago could have been mitigated if the FDA overhaul now being proposed had been in place then, says a University of Georgia food safety expert.

The Senate-passed food safety legislation, by requiring well-documented prevention programs of potential hazards, would have made Peanut Corp. of America’s problems more apparent, said Michael Doyle, a UGA food safety expert, in a Wednesday interview.

Peanut Corp.’s records of finding salmonella in its products at its Blakely, Ga., plant would have been shared with inspectors, Doyle said. “It would have been flagged and led to an immediate recall of their products.’’

The Senate on Tuesday passed its legislation to strengthen food regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

The salmonella outbreak that began in late 2008 sickened 700 people and led to nine deaths nationally. Food companies that used peanuts and peanut paste from the Blakely plant, or from one in Texas, had to recall thousands of products.

A federal report, based on a 2009 inspection, cited several instances in 2007 and 2008 in which Peanut Corp. found contamination by salmonella in its own tests of its product.

With the proposed record-keeping rules, ‘’there would have been more oversight of the facility,’’ Doyle said.

The Senate food safety proposal ‘’can go a substantial way’’ to making our food system safer, he said. Pathogen prevention rules that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has for meat and poultry would extend to the FDA oversight of other food processors.

One major change would allow the FDA to order the industry to recall food products. Now those recalls are voluntary. Companies would also face more requirements to be able to trace the origin of their ingredients and products, Doyle said. And food processors would have accountability for the safety of imported food products.

If the new rules are enacted, processors will probably face higher costs, Doyle said.

The rules would require more inspections of food plants and more inspectors. The legislation would bring the FDA ‘’into the 21st century,’’ reforming some statutes that are 100 years old, Doyle said.