ATLANTA --- Embarrassed by the nationwide salmonella outbreak that was linked to Georgia-made peanut products, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a bill into law Friday that makes the state the first to adopt stiff new food safety requirements.
The new regulations would require hundreds of food processors to alert state inspectors if internal tests show their products are tainted within 24 hours. It also gives Georgia agriculture officials the power to order the manufacturer to conduct more tests.
Federal officials, food scientists, legal experts and industry groups cannot point to another state with similar requirements.
"As far as I know, no other states have the authority to require this type of reporting. And it gives us the power to seek more testing," Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said. "This is increasing our authority and that's a major change."
The food safety changes moved rapidly through the Georgia Legislature in the wake of the outbreak that originated in a south Georgia peanut processing plant. The outbreak, linked to a plant in Blakely, Ga., sickened hundreds and is linked to the deaths of at least nine people.
The plant was owned by the Peanut Corp. of America, a Virginia-based company that investigators said knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.
State and federal law did not require the company to share those test results.
The outbreak had dealt a particularly devastating blow to Georgia, the nation's leading peanut producing state. The industry is estimated to employ 50,000 people in Georgia and has an annual estimated impact of $2.5 billion.
The outbreak forced Georgia politicians to consider immediate changes to the food safety rules.
"What we saw in Blakely last year was not, in any way, reflective of how Georgia farmers and food processors do business," Mr. Perdue said at a signing ceremony in Fort Valley, Ga.
"But we have to protect against mistakes and bad players, and this bill will allow the Department of Agriculture to require testing of food products before they reach market."
The law exempts meat, poultry and other manufacturers that are the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead, it focuses on the 16,000 other Georgia plants under the Food and Drug Administration's scrutiny.
State officials can't be certain the companies are reporting the data. But those that are found withholding, falsifying or concealing the reports could face felony charges that carry a prison sentence of up to five years and a $1,000 fine.
Experts applauded the move as a strong step toward more oversight, but some said it could have unintended consequences.
"Will this make people more reluctant to do testing? It may," said Joseph Hotchkiss, a food science professor at Cornell University who once worked for the FDA.
Still, he said, the new law certainly gives regulators new authority that could help them sniff out contamination earlier.
"And if Georgia passes a law that's going to help that process along, more power to them," he said.