Food safety falls to states, AP finds

Washington_The U.S. government has increasingly relied on food-safety inspections performed by states, where budgets for inspections in many cases have been stagnant and where overburdened officials are trained less than their federal counterparts and perform skimpier reviews, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The thoroughness of inspections performed by states has emerged as a key issue in the investigation of the national salmonella outbreak traced to a peanut processing plant in Blakely, Ga. The outbreak is blamed for more than 575 illnesses and at least eight deaths.

The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, which is to hold a hearing Wednesday on food safety, scheduled a meeting today to issue a subpoena for Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell, said a senior aide to a member of the panel. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because panel members were still being notified, said Parnell was otherwise refusing to appear at the hearing.

State investigators performed more than half the Food and Drug Administration's food inspections in 2007, according to an AP analysis of FDA data. That's a dramatic rise from a decade ago, when FDA investigators performed three out of four of the federal government's inspections.

A Georgia health inspector noted only two minor violations at the Peanut Corp. of America plant in October, and inspection reports indicate officials spent no more than a few hours inside the plant during visits there. But after the FDA became suspicious of the plant's role in the outbreak months later, it found roaches, mold, a leaking roof and other problems. The federal agents spent days at the plant.

"To say that food safety in this country is a patchwork system is giving it too much credit," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Agriculture Committee. "Food safety in America has become a hit-or-miss gamble, and that is truly frightening.."

The FDA never followed up on the Georgia inspections because the problems "were considered to be somewhat resolved," Michael Chappell, head of the FDA's enforcement division, said during a congressional hearing last week.

As a result of the Georgia case, food-safety inspections are facing new scrutiny from Congress. The FBI said Monday it has joined the criminal investigation involving the owner of the Georgia plant.

Seth Borenstein and Brett J. Blackledge , AP Writers COPYRIGHT 2009 BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.