Monday, June 14, 2010

Op-ed from Gary Black on the Importance of Food Safety in Georgia

Americans tend to take for granted that the food we buy at the supermarket, farmer's markets, and even roadside produce stands is safe. Unfortunately, there will be an occasional problem or recall but we quickly move past these and back into our default mode of trust and complacency. We assume somebody is keeping an eye on things. Well, somebody is, and in Georgia, that falls to the state Department of Agriculture which I am running to lead as Agriculture Commissioner.

Although we live in a time of political attacks, negative TV ads, and sound bites, I think it is important to talk about the real issues that will face those of us running for office should we be honored by the voters with their confidence. I think we owe you a plan of action as a part of our continuing job interview and that is exactly what I am going to provide over the coming weeks -- starting today with food safety.

Food safety is a core mission of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, and it must be pursued with diligence and fiscal discipline. I want to provide fresh, but experienced leadership in this arena.

It all starts with our Food safety inspectors who are the "boots on the ground" professionals whose seal of approval impacts public health, consumer confidence and the agricultural marketplace. We need to establish a positive, goal-oriented workplace accompanied by a system to measure results. I will inspire, motivate, and hold all inspectors accountable in a manner that will be best serve the consumers and farmers of Georgia.

We must enforce all food safety laws with science-based, common-sense standards for all and prejudice towards none. I will ensure that Department inspectors have the equipment and support to perform their duties effectively. We also need to ensure that each food safety inspection is thorough and conducted in a professional manner.

We also need to put in place better, more modern plans to provide back-up in emergency situations like a food-borne illness outbreak, natural disaster or homeland security threat.

Georgia is the Ninth largest state in the country and its largest industry is agriculture. To meet the challenges this presents, our inspectors need to be the best trained and educated in the country. We need to establish timelines for inspectors to complete continuing education through the International Food Protection Training Institute and Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO). I have a plan to underwrite this training without cost to the Georgia taxpayer and will give preference to in-state training whenever possible.

We must also establish a professional certification program for Georgia's food safety inspectors. Educational and service incentives will help retain the best employees, a move that in the long run will improve performance and be more cost-effective.

To improve our value to taxpayers, we need to utilize cost-effective new media and web-based technologies to improve consumer education on a wide array of topics including safe food handling practices and food recalls. We can also use these technologies in cooperation with producer and consumer groups to provide more online guidance on promoting locally produced food and the seasonal availability of Georgia products.

Consumer confidence is a key to the health of our agricultural economy, and it starts with a strong plan for improving food safety.

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