News Briefs

In Brief:

• Food safety legislation introduced on state and national level as a result of recall issue.

• Company at root of salmonella contamination files Chapter 7.

• Obama accounces intentions to phase out direct payments to farms with sales above $500,000.

• Sec. of Ag says direct payments under scrutiny at home and abroad; suggests farmers develop other sources of income.

• Georgia lawmakers and Agribusiness Council erect peanut display at state capitol to highlight important crop and coming food safety initiatives.

• Producers donate peanut butter to charity in Washington, D.C. State associations also working to fill empty food pantries locally.


U.S. House Holds Hearing On Recall
The United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce questioned key individuals involved in the contamination and recall of peanut products containing salmonella while trying to understand how the system failed to protect the consumer. They also discussed what legislation might be implemented to prevent this problem from happening again.

The Food and Drug Administration testified that officials inspected the processing plant from Jan. 9 to Feb. 5, 2009. They gained access to internal reports, which showed that on 12 occasions between June 2007 and September 2008, PCA peanut products tested positive for salmonella. Prior to this inspection, FDA had not visited the plant since 2001.

In August 2007 and June 2008, FDA arranged for the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) to inspect the plant under contract for FDA. The 2007 GDA inspection was routine with a negative salmonella test. A 2008 inspection was prompted by the discovery of metal shavings in products shipped to Canada. However, no products or environmental samples were tested for salmonella.

Darlene Cowart, of J. Leek and Associates, a technical services organization providing strategic quality assurance systems in the food and beverage industry, told the subcommittee, “The accepted procedure for killing salmonella, commonly referred to as a ‘kill step,’ in raw agricultural products is to heat the product to the necessary temperature for the appropriate period of time.”

Cowart said it is possible for salmonella to be reintroduced into a product after the kill step. Therefore, it is extremely important that all food manufacturing facilities maintain appropriate procedures and processes to assure that recontamination does not occur.

When Stewart Parnell, owner of Peanut Corp. of America and Sammy Lightsey, plant manager, were questioned by chairman Rep. Bart Stupak, both invoked the Fifth Amendment at the advice of counsel and did not testify.

Officials confirmed the company is now under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine responsibility. Federal law forbids producing or shipping foods under conditions that could harm consumers’ health.

After the hearing, food safety legislation was introduced by committee members. In Georgia, the state legislature has also introduced an amendment to the Georgia Food Act that would require regular testing by food processing plants and prompt reporting of the presence of any suspected contamination that would render food injurious to health or otherwise unfit for consumption.

Texas Plant Closed, PCA Files Bankruptcy
Texas Department of Health Services ordered a recall of all products ever shipped by Peanut Corp. of America plant in Plainview, Texas. The agency said “dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers” were discovered in a crawl space above a production area.

The health department order also requires the plant to stop producing and distributing food products.

Ted Higginbottom, Texas producer says, “It is unfortunate peanut farmers can do everything right to produce a healthy and safe product to feed both their families and the nation, and then have to carry the burden for something they could not control.”

The Peanut Corp. of America filed for chapter seven bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Virginia on Feb. 13. Companies file this in order to liquidate assets and distribute the proceeds to creditors. An appointed trustee will oversee the operation during this process.

Check-Off Referendum This Month
The Secretary of Ag has announced that peanut producers must vote in the affirmative to continue the national check-off of 1 percent of value for promotion, research and information.

Persons who produced peanuts during the period from Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2008, and paid assessments are eligible to vote. Those exempt from assessments are ineligible to vote.

The referendum will be conducted by mail from April 2 through April 30, 2009. A simple majority voting for the referendum will continue the order.

The referendum is conducted every five years or when 10 percent of the voters petition the Secretary of Agriculture.

Peanut growers presently have an assessment of 1 percent of value, which yields about $6 million annually for promotion, research and information. Ballots will be mailed April 2.

Some Direct Payments To Be Phased Out
In his recent address to the nation, President Obama said he would, “end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.”

Obama’s 2010 fiscal year budget proposal phases out direct payments, over the next three years, to U.S. farmers with sales above $500,000. The President also supports a cap on farm subsidies at $250,000 per year. He said that large farmers could replace those payments with alternate sources of income from emerging markets for environmental services such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production and providing clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat.

Secretary Tom Vilsack told wheat farmers recently that direct payments (those received regardless of farm profits or income) are under intense criticism both within the United States and abroad. Farmers would need to develop other sources of income, suggesting investments in bio-fuels, wind energy and organic agriculture.

Peanut Display For Visitors To Capitol
Lawmakers in Georgia teamed with the Georgia Agribusiness Council to let the public know that Georgia was still proud to be the leading peanut producing state, and efforts were underway to prevent food safety problems in the future.

Tables at the state capitol were lined with jars of peanut butter, cookies, candies, apples and peanut butter, bags of boiled peanuts and buckets of shelled peanuts. The display greeted hundreds of visitors to the capitol.

Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner, Tommy Irvin, said, “This is to convince the public – the best way we know how – that peanuts are safe. There are some skeptics out there that don’t know this is the result of one bad player.”

The peanut industry employs 50,000 people and has an estimated economic impact of $2.5 billion – more than double that of the next leading state.

“We’ve got to stand behind our products,” said state Sen. John Bulloch, a farmer, himself, who is backing stricter food-testing requirements. “We want consumers to know we’re doing what we can to put in the checks and balances to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Producers Donate To Feeding Programs
Producers from across the peanut belt joined together to donate more than 7,000 jars of peanut butter to Martha’s Table, a facility in the Washington, D.C. community with the mission of helping at-risk children, youth, families and individuals to improve their lives by providing educational programs, food, clothing and enrichment opportunities.

Food pantries and charitable organizations have been hit hard by the product recall. Peanut butter is a staple of these groups’ feeding programs. Besides this large effort, various associations have organized donations to food banks locally. Contact your state association to see how you can participate.

Florida Honors Past And Present Growers
At the 34th Annual Membership Meeting of the Florida Peanut Producers Association held recently in Jackson County, peanut growers both past and present were honored.

Michael Davis and Joe Tillman were recognized for their outstanding service and dedication to the association. Henry McCrone, of Blountstown, and Steve Jordan, of Bascom, were elected to serve as board members.

Charter Members of FPPA were recognized and honored with plaques. They were as follows: Richard Barber, Ocala; Robert Pender, Sea Side; Bob Price, Graceville; Charles Stephenson, Campbellton and the late R.D. Bennett, Greenwood. The FPPA also made a contribution to the University of Florida for peanut production research in honor of the late R.D. Bennett, the first President of FPPA. His son Dickie accepted the award.

Dr. Dan Gorbet, retired UF peanut breeder, was recognized for his life-long commitment to the industry. In appreciation of his efforts, Gorbet was given a Jack DeLoney print, “A Journey Through Time” and a lifetime membership to the FPPA.

Beaver Yoder was recognized with the “Young Peanut Farmer of the Year Award” sponsored by Farm Credit of North West Florida and the FPPA.

The program included reports from Leslie Wagner, Peanut Advisory Board, Marie Fenn, National Peanut Board, and Michael Davis, FPPA President.

More than 300 people attended the event.