ATLANTA (AP) -- The Georgia Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to toughen the state's food inspection laws, a move designed to reinstate consumer confidence following a salmonella outbreak linked to a peanut plant.
The legislation would require food makers to alert state inspectors within 24 hours if a plant's internal tests show its products are contaminated. If the measure becomes law, experts say Georgia would become the first state in the nation to require such internal reporting to the government.
The bill next goes to the House.
"I would say that this is one of the strongest pieces of legislation that's out there today ... on the inspection of food processing facilities," said the bill's sponsor, John Bulloch, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The outbreak, which led to one of the nation's largest food recalls and is suspected of sickening more than 600 people, has also depressed sales of peanut products. The developments have concerned industry insiders in Georgia, the nation's largest peanut producer. The industry employs 50,000 people with an annual estimated economic impact of $2.5 billion.
The bill would have provided state inspectors the red flag they needed to detect problems at Peanut Corp. of America's Georgia plant. Investigators say the Lynchburg, Va.-based company knowingly shipped salmonella-laced products even after internal tests showed they were contaminated.
Food safety experts said the overhaul is badly needed.
"Georgia is in the crosshairs and the state needs to take some leadership because it's been devastating to the peanut industry," said Michael Doyle, head of the food safety center at the University of Georgia.
Part of the bill deals with how frequently a food processor must conduct testing. Bulloch amended his own bill to exempt food manufacturers from the state Department of Agriculture's testing rules if it submits a food safety plan and the state approves it. There was no immediate comment from the state Department of Agriculture on the bill.
State Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned whether the amendment weakens the bill.
But Bulloch, a Republican from Ochlocknee, said the state must still decide if the company's food safety plan is adequate. He said it was unlikely that the state would approve a plan that did not contain frequent testing. The change was made to recognize the different testing requirements of different food industries, he said.
"The department is still driving the wagon," he said.
Bulloch called the bill a first step that would help rebuild confidence in the Georgia brand.
"We want the consumer to know that any product produced in this state that we're going to do everything we can to see to it that it's safe," he said.