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PMA takes issue with Georgia rule on finished product testing

After a scandal involving a Georgia peanut processing plant resulted in one of the larger U.S. recalls, the Georgia Legislature passed a sweeping new law to tighten testing and reporting requirements for food processors.

But the produce industry says that while the state's new draft rule released last month may work for food processors, it raises thorny issues for fresh produce, an industry that accounts for more than 85,000 full-time- equivalent jobs and more than $17 billion in total economic output for Georgia.

In January 2009, a congressional committee accused Peanut Corp. of America of shipping Salmonella-tainted products from its Blakely, GA, plant in 2007 and 2008 after internal tests found contamination.

At least 700 people became ill during the Salmonella outbreak and nine deaths may have been linked to the contaminated peanut products, which resulted in nearly 4,000 different product recalls.

Now the Georgia Department of Agriculture has published an 11-page draft rule that would require food companies to conduct finished-product testing, report test findings to state regulators and have these records available during inspections.

But the finished product testing provisions are what most worry the Produce Marketing Association.

"Produce is not like a batch of peanut butter where the product is made according to a recipe and blended," Robert Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for PMA, said in Feb. 12 comments to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Finished product testing in fresh produce is a challenge because produce items are not composed uniformly, and sampling is difficult to do in a statistically significant manner, Dr. Whitaker said.

Data generated by growers and processors in recent years show that contamination is "an extremely low-frequency event," but even when there is contamination found in a production field, it is random and isolated, he noted.

Dr. Whitaker listed the challenges facing companies handling perishable products and developing finished product-testing schemes.

"Today's automated packing machines run at speeds anywhere from 50 to 100 bags per minute, and sampling 10 or 20 or even 100 bags per line per hour only represents a fraction of the material being processed," he said. On top of that, if product testing were mandated, the state would have to work with the produce industry in establishing a standard test methodology for each commodity-pathogen combination.

PMA also took issue with a requirement that an operator must report to authorities a positive test result even if the product was not distributed and the problem was corrected.

"If the operator finds a positive test and controls the product so that it has not been released prior to receipt of the test result, then public health has not been compromised," argued Dr. Whitaker.

"It seems that if an operator is following the intent of this law and operating according to [its] food-safety program and detects an issue and takes proper corrective actions so that the affected products are not shipped, [it] should not be penalized" by being placed on a list of firms destined for accelerated sampling program, he said.

Finally, inspectors entering plants should not conduct random sampling of perishable products but limit authority to when inspectors believe a product could be contaminated.

Testing schemes require days to confirm results, and that means lots from which the samples are taken are no longer marketable, he said.