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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Food Safety a Top Issue for Agriculture Candidates

Atlanta Journal Constitution

Gary Black and Darwin Carter have a rough row to hoe: explaining to Republicans in metro Atlanta not only why they should vote for them but why they should care.

Black and Carter are battling to be the GOP nominee for agriculture commissioner on the November ballot against J.B. Powell, the sole Democrat vying for the spot. When the office was created in 1874, most residents of the Peach State knew it was an important job, but now with about the half the GOP primary voters in suburban Atlanta, fewer and fewer interested parties know why they should be interested, the men said.

One reason is pure economics. Agriculture and its related industries and businesses -- much of which are regulated by the commissioner -- have a $65 billion impact on the state's $786 billion economy, according to the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

The other is that the commissioner regulates a lot more things than agriculture: He or she is responsible for calibrating gasoline pumps, regulating pest control companies and, most importantly, inspecting food processing plants.

"It really is the Georgia Department of Agriculture and consumer affairs," said Carter of Jesup in South Georgia. "Many people do not understand that. Many people think it is just agriculture and it has nothing to do with me."

Last year, more than 700 people around the nation were sickened from salmonella after the department's inspectors overlooked sanitation violations at a peanut butter plant in Blakely in southwest Georgia. (A Texas plant belonging to the same company also was investigated in the outbreak.) Nine deaths were linked to the salmonella outbreak. Peanut Corp. of America declared bankruptcy after the outbreak.

"It's an important job," said Tony Carbo, a lobbyist for the nonprofit Food and Water Watch. "At the plant in Georgia, they obviously missed several key indicators such as dead vermin. ... Georgians and the rest of the consumers in the country are relying on the Georgia Department of Agriculture to do effective inspections."

Whoever ends up as the next commissioner will be replacing a Georgia political legend, Tommy Irvin, who has ruled the Agriculture Department since 1969. The department, which both regulates and promotes agricultural interests, will touch most Georgians in one way or another.

Both Black and Carter say they will focus on food safety if elected commissioner.

"If we don't have safe foods, we won't have strong farms," said Black of Commerce in northeast Georgia, who headed the Georgia Agribusiness Council -- a kind of chamber of commerce for agriculture -- for 21 years. He resigned to qualify for the commissioner race. "Folks in agriculture are champions of food safety because when the system is compromised, the public loses confidence in the market."

Black said that he would push for improvements in training for inspectors -- although Carbo said that the Georgia department actually had a good overall safety record -- and improve accountability up the chain of command. Carter said food safety would be his highest priority.

They also both emphasized expanding Georgia's agricultural market internationally would be the second pillar of their administration. The state has three ports -- including the barge port at Bainbridge, which connects to the Gulf of Mexico via the Apalachicola River -- and Colonel's Island at Brunswick is a major hub for agricultural exports. A recent article in the Atlantic magazine contended agriculture would eventually replace oil as the top commodity because arable land is becoming scarcer worldwide.

Carter said he worked eight years in the Reagan administration heading up international affairs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said he still maintains many of the international contacts he made in that job and later as a consultant in Africa. "That gave me, a South Georgia farmer, an international perspective and made me a household name in the United Nations for years," he said. "I want to see those Georgia seaports active with our agriculture products going out rather than Chinese, Chilean or Guatemalan products coming in."

Black said he hoped that he would be able to work with the next governor to be a part of international trade missions. "I want agriculture to be represented wherever Georgia goes on a trade mission because it is such an important component of what we do," he said.

He noted that the state's name had not only ties to King George but even longer ones to those who work the earth. George comes from the ancient Greek, Georgios.

"It means, ‘A farmer,' " Black said.