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After salmonella, Georgia officials defend inspectors

ATLANTA (AP)--Georgia's top agriculture officials on March 24 defended the state's inspection process at a legislative hearing called to address the salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia peanut processing plant.

The process came under fire after a state inspector found only minor problems when she probed the Blakely plant in October for less than two hours. Less than three months later, federal agents found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems.

Terry Coleman, Georgia's deputy agriculture commissioner, told House lawmakers that no amount of regulation will deter people who are intent on violating state laws.

"If a person intends to break the rules, unless you have somebody standing over that person from the time they get to work from the time they leave, there is no way to prevent that," Coleman said. "And in this particular case we believe that somebody in the plant intended to break the rules or break the laws. All the inspections we could muster couldn't prevent that."

Still, lawmakers responded to the outbreak by passing legislation that would make Georgia the first state to require that food makers swiftly alert state inspectors if their internal tests show their products are tainted. That proposal is awaiting Gov. Sonny Perdue's signature.

Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said such legislation would likely have "been impossible to pass" before the outbreak.

"When the governor signs this bill, we will have the best consumer protection bill in the nation--by far," he said.

The remarks came at a meeting of the House Consumer Protection Investigation and Oversight Subcommittee, whose members seemed to agree with Coleman's assessment.

"We had a bad apple there," said state Rep. Ellis Black, D-Valdosta. "And no amount of inspections is going to prevent a disaster."

The outbreak was traced to a Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely, Ga. Investigators say the company shipped salmonella-laced products from the plant even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.

The outbreak sickened hundreds and was linked to the deaths of as many as nine people. It's also hurt peanut butter sales throughout the nation, a particularly devastating blow to Georgia, the nation's leading peanut-producing state.

Oscar Garrison, another deputy agriculture commissioner, said the state inspector spotted no sign of any roof leak when she probed the plant. He said the federal inspectors who swarmed the area months later were able to use a lift to inspect the 26-foot-high roof.

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