Monday, February 2, 2009

Peanut catastrophe makes clear one thing: Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin's retirement is long overdue
by J. Randolph Evans
Georgia Online News Service

In 1969, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States. The Beatles gave their last live concert (an impromptu performance). The Palestinian Liberation Organization elected Yasser Arafat as its leader at the Palestinian National Congress. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy drove off the Chappaquiddick Island bridge with Mary Jo Kopechne. Apollo 11 landed on the moon. The Woodstock Festival occurred in upstate New York. Actress Jennifer Anniston was born, and on Feb. 11, she will be 40.

This was all before cell phones, the internet, email, and even the transition to digital for television stations. 1969 was also the year that Georgia's current Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin took office.

Since then, Commissioner Irvin has been reelected nine times and is serving his tenth term. Of course, things have changed a lot in these 40 years. Georgia has changed a lot in these 40 years. He is the longest serving statewide elected official in Georgia.

Amidst it all, Commissioner Irvin has been a relatively popular Agriculture Commissioner, especially among those whose businesses he impacts the most. Indeed, Irvin has accumulated one of the largest campaign war chests in Georgia history - so large that he has undisclosed investments that rival the wealthiest Georgians.

Unfortunately, all this popularity has not meant much for the protection of Georgians, and now Americans, from contaminated food generated in processing facilities in Georgia. The Georgia Agriculture Commissioner's office has the responsibility for inspecting food processing facilities in Georgia on behalf of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration. In the 2009 world of interstate (indeed, international) commerce, this is a significant responsibility.

There is no better illustration of that responsibility than the salmonella contamination of peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. The consequences arising from the shipment of contaminated peanut products have been serious. More than 500 people nationwide have gotten sick and eight people have died.

When the Georgia Agriculture Department inspected the peanut processing plant last October, officials found the food safety violations were "relatively minor." Yet, according to the FDA, Peanut Corporation of America documents reflect that the company shipped peanut products that tested positive for salmonella bacteria 12 times.

Of course, 21st century food processing systems are much different than those that existed in 1969. Indeed, with the help of scientific developments and computer assisted mass production/distribution, food products processed today reach every corner of the planet and are consumed by millions of people. Systems that were developed before man landed on the moon do not match up very well. Then, there is the scale of production in Georgia. There are 16,000 processing plants, grocery stores and food warehouses in Georgia.

Georgia's assistant agriculture commissioner for consumer protection says, "Our goal is to prevent recurring violations from happening." The Blakely peanut processing plant had been inspected multiple times in 2006 and 2008 with cited food safety violations six times and a report containing photographs to document a 'black buildup' of unknown origin.

Tony Corbo from Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit watchdog group noted, "These violations were recurring." (So much for preventing recurring violations.)

Unfortunately, it is not as if the Blakely peanut plant is the first sign of a problem with food originating in Georgia. Instead, there has been a consistent pattern of problems over the past few years that now enable Georgia to rival China as a source of contaminated food. This is not good for the safety of consumers anywhere. It is not good for Georgia businesses. And, it is not good for Georgia.

In 2010, Georgian's will elect the Commissioner of Agriculture. There is no word yet on whether Commissioner Irvin will seek his eleventh term as the Commissioner of Agriculture.

Commissioner Irvin was first elected to office in 1956 as a member of the Habersham Board of Elections. Forty-two years later a portion of Highway 365 was named after him (the "Tommy Irvin" Parkway). He has been inducted into the Georgia Agrirama Hall of Fame, the Vidalia Onion Hall of Fame, the Georgia Seed Association Hall of Fame, the Habersham County Hall of Fame, and the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Hall of Fame and, according to the Democratic Party of Georgia website, "Commissioner Irvin is recognized nationally for his service as an agriculture leader". Well, thanks to the Peanut Corporation of America, he is now recognized nationally for something else, and Georgia is not the better because of it. It is time for Commissioner Tommy Irvin to take his awards and step aside - for sake of the health of Georgians and Americans everywhere.

Change came to Washington, D. C. in 2008. It may be time for change to come to the peanut capital of the world - Georgia.

J. Randolph Evans is a long-time Republican strategist and the chair of the Financial Institutions practice at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. The Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) is in its second full week of distribution. More than 30 of the top journalists are busy creating content that's important and entertaining for all Georgians. Newspapers and broadcasters throughout the state are receiving complimentary editions of GONSO. We hope you read our work, use it and tell us what you think.

Today's offerings touch on a series of controversial issues in Georgia.

Veteran roaming reporter Bill Osinski goes to Richland, a town south of Columbus. There he tells us about a failed water system – don't drink what comes out of the tap, please! – and the failed politics that led to the crisis.

Two guest writers – both lawyers – weigh in on some critical problems. E. Wycliff Orr laments the injustice in the justice system, and notes that in this period of economic downturn, we need legal opinions from judges that tilt the balance toward common folk. And, J. Randolph Evans says the current crisis with contaminated peanut products, which has given all of Georgia a black eye, can be blamed on lax enforcement by Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

Finally, we have a real treat. Debuting today is the first column by best-selling author and humorist Hollis Gillespie. Don't expect anything less than a stimulating, sometimes infuriating, read from Gillespie. I knew her for years when she was the brightest marquee writer at Creative Loafing, and I've got to tell you, she's a killer. Now she's writing for GONSO. What place in Georgia truly deserves to have Gillespie drop in? The state Capitol, of course, and in today's column she talks about the brisk sales of pain-killers at the Gold Dome.

– John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

Peanut catastrophe makes clear one thing: Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin's retirement is long overdue

by J. Randolph Evans
In 1969, Georgia's current Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin took office. Since then, Commissioner Irvin has been reelected nine times and is serving his tenth term. Commissioner Irvin has been a relatively popular Agriculture Commissioner, especially among those whose businesses he impacts the most. Indeed, Irvin has accumulated one of the largest campaign war chests in Georgia history - so large that he has undisclosed investments that rival the wealthiest Georgians.

Unfortunately, all this popularity has not meant much for the protection of Georgians, and now Americans, from contaminated food generated in processing facilities in Georgia. There is no better illustration of that responsibility than the salmonella contamination of peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. The consequences arising from the shipment of contaminated peanut products have been serious. More than 500 people nationwide have gotten sick and eight people have died.

Full Story

Pain Relief at the Capitol

by Hollis Gillespie
It looks like Tylenol is the pain reliever of choice in the Georgia Capitol, though the snack kiosk across from Gov. Sonny Purdue's office also offers Advil, Motrin and a half dozen other options. Rex, who is the cashier – and Rex is not his real name, his real name is very clearly printed on his Georgia state employee badge, but you will have to visit him to see it – has been working at the kiosk for five years now, and you can consider him the resident expert on pain-reliever options at the Capitol.

"I got to restock them Tylenols," he says. "They really like the Tylenols."

Full Story

Bitter Tea In Richland: Town's water contamination highlights infrastructure problems statewide

by Bill Osinski
You don't need a visa to go to Richland, Ga.

But anyone heading for this Stewart County town a few miles south of Columbus should heed some third-world travel advice: DON'T DRINK THE WATER!

Basically, the city's water lines have become choked with asbestos contamination. It's gotten so bad that the city must charge a flat rate to all its customers, because many individual water meters around town have become so thickly clogged that they cannot be read anymore.

The situation is getting resolved; about 80 percent of the city's water lines will be replaced sometime this year. Still, the remaining pipes are also bad and Richland is already so in debt from the first round of replacements that it can't afford what remains to be done.

Full Story

It may be the law – but is it just and do our judges care?

by E. Wycliff Orr
As the economy seems to be collapsing around us, where are the courts in Georgia? How will they rule on cases that will inevitably be spawned by the hard economic times: foreclosures, firings, plant closings, repossessions.

More than the public realizes, courts have powers, written and unwritten, to craft practical win-win solutions, and to mitigate the plight of those standing before the bar of justice. Much of this comes down simply to the judge's attitude, and to whether or not judges are willing to exercise those powers, as opposed to simply processing the case, rendering judgment, and clearing the docket. Although they have neither the time nor resources to be "nannies" in every case, with a little creativity and compassion, judges can often relieve the law of some of its inherent severity.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
When business has failed so utterly, it isn't "socialism" for government to set things right
by John Sugg
Economic downturn could produce a level playing field for baseball
by Paul Kaplan
Perdue should not hike the cost of home ownership or medical care
by Sam Olens
Georgia Power's Nuke-Sized Nightmare
by Lyle Harris

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