1. Georgia sustained a Category 3 hurricane.
Hurricane Michael’s track took a staggering toll on agriculture, which is a $73.3 billion industry in Georgia, making it the No. 1 contributor to the state's economy. Damage estimates as of late Oct. 2018 exceeded $2 billion in direct commodity loss. Cotton loss was placed at $550 million; vegetables, $480 million; pecans, $560 million; poultry, $25 million; peanuts, $20 million; timber, $374 million; and the landscape and green industry, $13 million.
From a food safety standpoint, hurricanes often result in power loss, structural damage and flooding, and destruction of food products impacted by the storm. In response to Hurricane Michael, the GDA Food Safety Division broadly leveraged new Geographic Information System (GIS) technology for the first time to conduct emergency assessments of food facilities across the state. The technology helped inspectors conduct assessments more accurately and efficiently, with results shared in real-time.
Previous paper-based forms and manual entry were transformed for the Hurricane Michael response, using a new electronic survey with a data analysis dashboard platform. To enhance the GDA’s ability to quickly and effectively conduct emergency assessments, inspectors collected data through a custom survey that captured the level of damage to Georgia’s food facilities.
This included a review of each firm’s status of electricity, potable water, sewage system, food handling and preparation areas, and lost food product due to physical damage, loss of power, flooding, etc. The survey also actively tracked whether a food inspector took any regulatory action, such as witnessing a firm’s destruction of product, or rejecting equipment (for example, a refrigerator no longer working due to power loss).
Fig. 1: Screenshot of the GDA’s Survey123 dashboard, with real-time updates as data is inputted by inspectors as they complete assessments. Data shown here summarizes the GDA’s food safety response specifically for Hurricane Michael.
Fig. 2: Blue dots represent food processors and manufacturers in Georgia that were in the pathway for hurricane and tropical storm force winds as Michael moved across the state.
2. Inspectors from Ireland came to Georgia (and vice versa) in an educational food safety inspector exchange program.
Georgia welcomed visitors from Ireland in Oct. 2018 as part of a novel Inspector Exchange Program, co-hosted by the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) and Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (AFM).
The program “intertwines the knowledge, skills and best practices between our two agencies, sharing information with a global perspective,” said Gary W. Black, Agriculture Commissioner for Georgia.
"This experience has allowed us to discuss new and ongoing import and export initiatives,” Commissioner Black continued,” with a focus on current challenges and promoting agriculture here in the U.S. and overseas.”
The vision began in 2017 and took several months to coordinate. GDA inspectors traveled to Dublin, Ireland on Oct. 1 for a ten-day tour (cut one day short due to Hurricane Michael’s progression here in the states). The American inspector duo got a first-hand look at Ireland's artisan dairy products, beverage production, meat processing, bakeries and supermarkets.
"One of our primary goals was to gain a better understanding of each other's food safety programs from a variety of types of regulated facilities, as well as foundational elements," said Natalie Adan, GDA Food Safety Director. "We've been able to do a peer review of existing policies and procedures that will, in turn, strengthen each other's food safety programs."
Ireland's Minister of Agriculture, Michael Creed, partnered with Commissioner Black and the GDA to develop the exchange program. AFM hopes to expand Ireland's sheep industry into a viable trade with the U.S.
The GDA welcomed Superintending Veterinary Inspector Ann Scanlon and Dairy Controls and Export Certifier Damien O'Meara from AFM in the exchange. The two have extensive background knowledge of Ireland's meat industry and spent a week helping to broaden and share best practices with the GDA. Their visit to Georgia included meeting state and federal officials at the GDA in Atlanta, touring laboratories, shellfish facilities, dairy farms and milking plants, and a sheep processing facility.
The importance of an integrated food safety system means taking an international approach to enhancing food safety for consumers on every continent. With the conclusion of the exchange program, the GDA and AFM plan to continue building and maintaining interagency collaboration. The two organizations hope to generate national and international awareness by sharing the successes and cooperative learning experiences gleaned from the program.
As part of an international exchange, two regulators from the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) spent a week in Ireland in early October and two of Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (AFM) inspectors came to Georgia later in the month. Pictured (L to R) are Dale Crammond, Counsellor Agriculture and Food Embassy of Ireland, Ann Scanlon, Superintending Veterinary Inspector for DFA, GDA Commissioner Gary Black, Damien O'Meara, Dairy Controls and Export Certification for DFA, and Shane Stephens, Ireland's Consul General with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
3. Georgia participated in the traceback investigation related to romaine lettuce and E. coli, with 7 related illnesses linked to the multistate outbreak.
In three outbreaks in 2018, romaine lettuce was named as the source of nearly 300 infections that sent 128 people to the hospital with six deaths. Both U.S. and Canadian federal food safety experts named romaine as the culprit, with romaine products pulled from retail shelves as recently as the day before Thanksgiving – but no official recalls were ever issued.
The first outbreak was declared “over” in the U.S. in late Jan. 2018. Leafy greens were not officially identified as the problem here in the U.S. (but were in Canada). The second outbreak came in the spring of 2018 with a warning to the public to avoid romaine from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region that came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
In April, here in Georgia, illness cases from a restaurant chain were reported to the Cobb Douglas Health Department. Those customers reported eating romaine and were ultimately linked to the outbreak. Information gathered from the restaurant was utilized by the GDA to traceback to a distributor, which confirmed a connection to the Yuma growing region. Information from GA was shared with the CDC and FDA.
In total, Georgia had seven cases included in the multi-state outbreak. Two of those Georgia patients developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is a serious complication of contracting an E. coli O157:H7 infection.
Federal investigations into the two later outbreaks found the outbreak strain of E. coli in canal water in the Yuma growing region and in the sediment of an irrigation reservoir.
These are two examples of how produce companies are applying the voluntary harvest region and date labeling concept to romaine; courtesy of Food Safety News.
4. Georgia was also involved in the multistate Salmonella outbreak investigation of kratom and kratom-containing products.
After a 41-state outbreak of Salmonella infections were linked to kratom products last year, FDA issued a report stating, “Kratom is not legally marketed in the U.S. as a drug or dietary supplement. Kratom is an opioid, is addictive and has been linked to severe health consequences and deaths among users.”
Here in Georgia, we had three confirmed cases of Salmonella illesses linked to the multi-state outbreak. The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) led the investigation, with one on-site visit to a smoke shop selling kratom products. In the overall public health investigation, 74 percent of the 103 people interviewed said they consumed kratom via pills, powder or made into a tea. Products were purchased in retail stores and online.
By the end of the outbreak, 199 people in 41 states were reported with Salmonella-related illnesses, including at least 50 hospitalizations, all tied to various kratom products. The FDA closed its investigation in July, concluding “anyone consuming kratom may be placing themselves at a significant risk of being exposed to salmonella.” Kratom has no proven medical uses, and the public is strongly advised not to consume any kratom-containing products.
Images courtesy of Food Safety News.
5. Georgia received the 2018 Elliot O. Grosvenor Food Safety Award.
The Elliot O. Grosvenor Food Safety Award was created to recognize leaders who best showcase improvement, innovation, or sustained high performance within a food safety program. A food safety program could include responsibility for: food safety, food protection, and food defense or food sanitation.
Each year, the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) seeks nominations from throughout the food safety community and convenes an independent panel of food safety experts from academia, industry and the regulatory community to select the winners. Nominations are evaluated based on proven achievements that further food safety breakthroughs, systems improvements, education and training, and community outreach.
The GDA was found to “exemplify the spirit of advancing a nationally integrated food safety system (IFSS)” by maintaining conformance with the Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards (MFRPS) and providing the FDA the foundation to improve the quality of contracts, coordination of inspections, investigations and enforcement to effective and efficiently protect public health.
“By using the standards as a road-map, the GDA has made tremendous strides in building a high quality regulatory program that is organized, focused, and accountable. GDA continues to build capacity and maintain the foundational core necessary to sustain a robust integrated system by relying on mutual reliance tactics that protect public health,” the award press release stated in June. “This joint approach is beneficial in conserving resources, avoiding duplication of work, improving communication between agencies, and promoting an integrated methodology of a unified workforce.”
The GDA Food Safety Division at the 2018 Statewide Training in Aug. at Callaway Gardens. Photo courtesy of GDA.