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Experts say county on top of food safety
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Sheryl White was one of many shocked consumers after a peanut plant in Blakely, roughly five hours away, was determined to be the source of a salmonella outbreak.
“I was immediately concerned because we are a fan of peanut butter,” White said.
The outbreak in late January affected nearly 2,000 products across the country and was responsible for at least nine deaths and an estimated 700 illnesses.
White came to work shortly after the announcement to find all but one of the peanut products in the vending machine removed.
“To learn later they knew about some of the violation — it’s like they were all about the dollar,” White said. “It makes you wonder what else is going on.”
The criminal justice major said she is following the case closely and wants to see how the company will end up.
After the incident, legislators unanimously voted to tighten state inspection requirements, the first such legislation in the country.
Under Senate Bill 80, food processing plants will now be required to report positive pathogen tests within 24 hours to the state agriculture department and prove pathogen destruction.
Oscar Garrison, assistant commissioner of consumer protection, confirmed January’s case involved a company intentionally distributing tainted products.
“He knew he had a positive test on that product,” Garrison said. “He didn’t alert anybody and he sent that product into the marketplace.
“If they found a positive, then the company should have, and 99.9 percent do, throw the product [out],” Garrison said.
Linus Woodard, environmental health program manager, said she thinks “it’s always good to get a watchful eye for food safety.”
“Pretty much here, Liberty County is pretty much on top of it,” Woodard said of the department’s quarterly, unannounced inspections. “I would rate it anywhere from 80 to 100 on average.”
Officials say regulations haven’t come up before because, essentially, they weren’t needed.
“This is not the way that 99.9 percent of the processing plants in this country operate,” Garrison said.
“This is the first time in my 15 years ... we’ve seen a situation where the operator knowingly had a [contaminated] product and put it out.”
Woodard said the county typically only sees isolated cases of foodborne illnesses, “not a bunch of people that got sick.”
“It’s few and far between, as far as people calling in,” Woodard said.
The last major salmonella outbreak White heard about was the spinach scare a couple years ago.
Spinach was a salad staple for her, but she stopped buying it in the store until they narrowed down the contamination source.
“Ironically to me, it’s all the organic food that’s having the problems — all the food that’s supposed to be good for you,” White said.
The state estimates at least 1,000 processing plants get bi-annual, unannounced formal inspections by the department.
Things can be missed, even in an inspection — what Garrison called “simply a snapshot in time.”
“You can’t walk in a plant and see salmonella,” Garrison said. “What we look for is a situation that can potentially lead to contamination.”
Inspections can range from 15-30 minutes at convenience stores to five or six hours at plants that process multiple products.
“By having the availability of sample records and recognition of pathogen destruction when we’re not there, that would greatly expand the inspector’s ability to see more of what’s going on while not here,” Garrison said.
Before the legislation, plants were on a type of honor system, where they were supposed to handle discrepancies on their own through internal inspections.
Given the sporadic salmonella, however, Garrison said she guesses it was pocket contamination that prevented the bacteria from growing.
She thinks “lab-shopping” may have occurred in the Blakely outbreak, where only a few samples came up positive, but the negative samples were submitted for inspection.
While contamination can occur from unsanitary conditions, storage and equipment at the plant, Garrison reminds consumers to do their part to keep food safe.
“In a lot cases of food borne illnesses, the contamination can occur at home… taking a perfectly good product and cross contamination,” Garrison said, stressing the importance of handwashing, handling techniques and cooking food to the proper temperatures.
The quest for safe food has made White’s shopping trips more tedious, particularly when it comes to milk and bread,  which she said she’s especially cautious about.
“Another thing, having kids you really have to be more careful,” White said.

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