Georgia's 9th District congressman, Nathan Deal, usually doesn't make ripples in Washington. So when he came out of his shell the other day to defend the peanut before Congress, he made news. He told a House committee hearing on the recent Georgia peanut scandal that he often ate raw peanuts and suffered no ill effects.
His declaration didn't make much impression on his colleagues, who are determined to craft new laws regarding peanut safety.
They're all worked up because of an outbreak of salmonella in at least 43 states and Canada. Hundreds of people have been hospitalized, and several have died. The malady has been traced to single dirty peanut plant in Blakely - a plant that obviously had not been inspected for sanitation hazards. The boss of the plant declined to testify when called at the hearing. He said he did not want to incriminate himself.
After listening to the hearing on C-SPAN for a couple of hours, I popped a cold one, grabbed a handful of goobers and jotted down these observations.
· Despite Rep. Deal's testimony, raw peanuts will give a person a tummy ache if he or she eats too many.
· Watch the dirty peanuts issue closely. Congress can debate bank bailouts, Iraq and Wall Street all day and not hear a peep from anybody. Bringing up clean food is a different matter. If you want to see Mama mad, just suggest that the food in the supermarket may not be safe. Try telling her that no one in authority has checked that peanut butter in the cute little jar. Then warn her that the cute little jar may be crawling with microscopic bugs that will make you really sick, a lot sicker than if you had eaten raw peanuts.
· Two other Georgia congressmen - Dr. Phil Gingrey of Marietta and John Barrow of Savannah - acquitted themselves well before the hearing, even if most of the other lawmakers seem to take a dim view of anything from Georgia.
· The Georgia Agriculture Department was represented by a couple of young scientists, who understandably seemed nervous. The future of the Georgia peanut industry may be on the line. Georgia Ag Commissioner Tommy Irvin couldn't make it, but he sent his able assistant, former House Speaker Terry Coleman of Eastman.
· I shall not bore you with details of the hearing, but you ought to know this: That peanut plant and lots of others like it are inspected by people who are chosen and paid by the plants' bosses, the hearing revealed. As Rep. Barrow explained, "It's like trying your own case in court." In short, you need an impartial judge for a fair trial.
· The Democrats on the committee, mostly Yankees from Ohio and Michigan, were really down on the federal Food and Drug Administration. They hinted that they would like to turn the FDA on its head and secure guarantees that the American food industry is producing safe and edible products. This is not China, somebody chimed in.
· I'm willing to bet that, before long, Congress will introduce a measure called the Georgia Peanut Act that will make peanut processors as closely watched as nuclear engineers and diamond cutters. Georgia or any other state cannot afford to produce a fun food like peanuts and have it loaded with killer bacteria. A bailout will not kill salmonella.
I wonder if any Georgia lawmaker is courageous enough to break his close ties with agribusiness and come down on the side of clean food and tougher regulations and inspections. Never mind. I already know the answer.
Let's get back to the performances of Reps. Barrow and Gingrey. Gingrey, who is a medical doctor, ought to quit wasting time in Washington. He ought to have his own TV show. He has that pleasant and agreeable manner required for the tube. At a town meeting recently, I heard him talk with a woman who wanted a progress report on our war with Iran (not Iraq). He forgot to tell her that we're not at war with Iran.
On TV, Gingrey could call himself "The Other Dr. Phil" and have his friend and mentor Rush Limbaugh drop by as a guest to discuss problems related to marriages and drugstore prescriptions.
As for Barrow, he ought to stay where he is. It is pleasant to hear at least one Georgia congressman hold his own in debate and declamations in the House. Some have speculated that Barrow might go for a U.S. Senate seat one day. Johnny Isakson's post is up for grabs in next year's election. I just wish Barrow had not gone to Harvard Law after he left UGA. That kind of negative credential has a way of working against a candidate in Georgia elections.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.