ATLANTA -- Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black pledged to a farm group Wednesday to fight implementation of proposed federal food-safety regulations that he said would cripple Georgia's produce industry.
"If we allow this to stand on produce, they'll come back for peanuts and a number of businesses," he said. "The sky will be the limit if we allow this to stand."
The draft regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are designed to implement new safeguards enacted by Congress three years ago in the Food Safety Modernization Act. They come in the wake of numerous outbreaks traced to food-borne illness.
The FDA estimates 48 million Americans suffer from some form of food poisoning, with 100,000 hospitalized and thousands killed. Fresh produce is a focus because food processors and restaurants are already regularly inspected, but salads and fruits eaten raw don't subject pathogens to sterilizing heat.
Black's concern is that the rigorous new precautions will be onerous and expensive.
"If you don't like what they're doing to healthcare, wait until they get hold of food," he said.
Agriculture is Georgia's largest economic segment, responsible for nearly 400,000 jobs and a $77 billion impact. To protect it, Black pledged to the Georgia Agribusiness Council he headed before his election that he would keep the state out front of efforts to modify the regulations.
The FDA has extended the public-comment period and will issue a revised proposal next year. Black, though, lamented that few of his colleagues in other states showed similar outrage at a meeting last week.
"If we have to lead from our industry here and our congressional delegation here, then by gum, that's what we'll do," he said.
The biggest concern Georgia farmers have, according to Agribusiness Council President Bryan Tolar, is that compliance will leave them unable to compete with cheaper imports that don't have to meet the same safety standards.
"We're all about food safety. It's not about trying to get around those responsibilities," he said. "What we want is an even playing field."