Food safety overhaul already taking heat

An early 2011 test for President Obama’s administration may come from a Georgia congressman, and it concerns legislation that focuses on the health of Americans.

But it’s not health care reform.

Rep. Jack Kingston’s target is a $1.4 billion overhaul of the nation’s food safety regulations, which Obama plans to sign Tuesday. Kingston, a Republican who is in line to chair a key House regulatory panel, says the law is too costly.

“There’s a high possibility of trimming this whole package back,’’ Kingston told Bloomberg News. He also called the nation’s food supply ‘’99.999 percent safe.’’

The overhaul would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall tainted foods. It would also increase inspections at food processing plants and require food companies to develop hazard prevention plans.

The food safety rules have a significant Georgia link. Obama called for the food safety overhaul in the wake of the 2008 salmonella outbreak linked to Peanut Corp. of America’s plants in Georgia and Texas. He has cited peanut butter as a product that consumers should feel safe about eating.

The CDC estimates that each year, 48 million Americans – one in six – become ill from food they eat. That leads to about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that such illnesses are responsible for tens of billions of dollars in health care costs annually.

Kingston voted against the food safety bill and considers it an unnecessary expansion of government, according to an article. “I think we’ll look very carefully at the funding before we support $1.4 billion,’’ he told the Associated Press.

But a University of Georgia food safety expert told Georgia Health News recently that the peanut-related salmonella outbreak two years ago could have been mitigated if the FDA overhaul required in the new legislation had been in place then. Requiring well-documented prevention programs for potential hazards would have made Peanut Corp. of America’s problems more apparent, said Michael Doyle, a UGA food safety expert.

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 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 food safety plan ‘’can go a substantial way’’ in improving the safety of our food system, Doyle said. But food-processing companies will probably face higher costs, he added.

Under the law, pathogen prevention rules that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has for meat and poultry will extend to the FDA oversight of other food processors, Doyle said.