Sonny Perdue won't offer much promise for the future of our food system
The two largest recalls of contaminated peanuts in U.S. history occurred in Georgia under Sonny Perdue’s watch, and are linked to at least nine deaths. Perdue’s delayed response to the food-borne catastrophes in his home state calls into question his qualifications to oversee the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
After becoming governor of Georgia in 2003 Perdue kept his promise to cut the state budget drastically – including the budget of the food safety and inspection unit of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
Three years into Perdue’s term, in November 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Georgia state health officials began investigating an outbreak of salmonella infections ultimately blamed for sickening at least 628 people in 41 states.
Investigators traced the salmonella to jars of ConAgra’s Peter Pan and Great Value brand peanut butters, produced in Sylvester, Georgia. ConAgra officials blamed moisture from a leaky roof and a malfunctioning sprinkler system at the Georgia plant for helping salmonella bacteria grow on raw peanuts, and launched a recall of all peanut butter produced from those peanuts between 2004 and 2007.
State food safety inspections should have flagged the conditions that led to the contamination, but Deputy Commissioner Oscar Garrison admitted that Georgia’s Department of Agriculture did not have adequate funding to do all the inspections they were required to do. And unfortunately, the lesson that peanuts could cause major problems was not quickly learned by Sonny Perdue.
In late 2008 and early 2009, as a result of salmonella contamination events at Peanut Corporation of America (PCA)’s Georgia plant, nine people died and at least 714 people (half of them children) fell ill. This contamination triggered the most extensive food recall in U.S. history up to that time, involving 46 states, more than 360 companies, and more than 3,900 different products.
It was only after this second major recall – and consumer deaths – that then-Governor Perdue agreed to more funding for a $24 million facility to test for pathogens in Georgia plants, according to Garrison’s testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.
It took Perdue four years and two scandals to implement better food safety rules for produce in Georgia. If confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture, Perdue’s USDA won’t be responsible for inspecting peanuts, but for inspecting almost all of the meat and poultry consumed in the United States. Americans will depend on him to act quickly to stop contaminated meat getting to market. His failure to protect consumers was unacceptable in Georgia, and will be at the USDA.
And it isn’t solely Perdue’s slow reaction time to peanuts that is concerning. After California voters approved Proposition 2 in 2008 to require more humane production of chicken, he signed H.B. 529 that prohibits local governments from adopting any regulation of factory farms, including poultry operations. As head of the USDA, will he support improved animal welfare regulations? Or will more states need to pass their own regulations to make animal agriculture safer and more humane?
As Secretary of Agriculture, Perdue will oversee USDA’s role in helping to limit the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture — a major source of the public health threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. While President Trump has said that regulations are “undermining our incredible farmers”, it is not clear whether, Perdue, as a veterinarian, he thinks that extends to antibiotic use.
As governor, Perdue had problems with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and cut funding they received from the state of Georgia that would have helped black and Latino farmers. As the head of the USDA, he will be responsible for implementing a federal court decision related to the USDA’s past discrimination against black farmers in lending programs.
Finally, now more than ever family farmers and small-scale producers need government support. Most poultry farmers are contracted to grow for a very few large poultry processing plants. Hog and cattle production is moving toward the contract model too. Given his history in Georgia — the state with the highest large-scale poultry production in the U.S. — will Perdue promote fairness in contracts for all small producers? And especially for minority farmers and farm workers?
If Perdue becomes our next Secretary of Agriculture, the lives and livelihoods of Americans will depend on him acting fast and making the right decisions about our food and farms. Sadly, his peanuts-performance as governor of Georgia does not offer much promise for the future of our food system.
Jaydee Hanson is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.
This article was originally posted in The Hill on 2/12/17.