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TribBlog: Staples, TDA Respond to Gilbert's Attack

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ camp calls a recent attack by Hank Gilbert’s campaign “the lowest a political campaign has ever stooped in Texas politics."

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples

Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples’ camp calls a recent attack by Hank Gilbert’s campaign “the lowest a political campaign has ever stooped in Texas politics."

Over the weekend, the Democratic challenger's camp laid the blame for nine salmonella-related deaths around the country at the feet of the Texas Department of Agriculture, even though it is not the agency responsible for food safety inspections in the state.

“There’s not one shred of believability to any of it,” says Staples' campaign consultant Bryan Eppstein.

The case hinges on a peanut plant in Plainview that was found to be contaminated with the same strain of salmonella that swept the nation in 2008 and 2009, infecting hundreds of individuals — killing nine of them. The plant was owned by Peanut Corporation of America and was implicated in an investigation that originally traced the source of the fatal outbreak to a PCA plant in Blakely, Georgia (which is, of course, outside the scope of any Texas agency).

Gilbert’s accusation didn’t just raise eyebrows at the campaign.  TDA officials were also confused, because food safety inspections are — and have been — the duty of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “We just don’t have that food safety role in our ability to make them stop production or processing food,” says TDA Chief of Staff Shannon Rusing. “That is the Department of Health Services. We just don’t have that role.”

TDA was responsible for certifying that the Plainview plant’s products were organic. However, they had a policy — which Rusing says went above and beyond the national policy at the time — of requiring the inspector to verify a company’s health certification in order to grant its organic certification.  A TDA inspector, who reviewed the plant annually, repeatedly marked that the plant had been certified by DSHS when it, in fact, had not. When the TDA inspector’s misrepresentations were discovered in February of 2009, he was terminated immediately.

Even if the inaccuracies of the inspector's reports been discovered earlier, Rusing says, TDA did not have the authority to close the plant.  “All we could have done is revoke their organic certification,” Rusing says, adding that TDA would also have notified DSHS, leaving it to that agency to investigate and respond accordingly.

Though DSHS bears the weight of the responsibility for food safety in Texas, Gilbert spokesman Vince Leibowitz is standing by his statement that "those deaths are at the door of the Texas Department of Agriculture" because a TDA staffer had the opportunity to sound the alarm and didn’t. "Restoring a culture of genuine accountability to the agency is key here," he says. As for how Gilbert would operate differently, Leibowitz says, “All inspectors will be required to obtain proof and documentation that facilities have the licenses they claim. TDA will institute internal controls under Hank's leadership to require independent verification of permits from other agencies.”

Leibowitz doesn't think there should be a singling out of the inspector, who he believes, after multiple years of seeing the plant in bad condition and hearing about the Georgia plant, must have alerted his higher ups.  "Common sense tells us this was the case," he says, "and that TDA ignored it or instructed the inspector, for whatever reason, that this was okay."

There's no evidence to back that assertion. In fact, the inspector has apologized and accepted responsibility for his error, as noted in this account from the Austin American-Statesman:

The inspector, Gaylon Armonett, told the Associated Press the reason he checked "yes" the first time was that a plant manager told him an application for state health licensing had been completed and was in the hands of officials at the company's headquarters. Armonett said he checked "yes" in the succeeding years because he assumed the license was granted.

“It's an inadvertent mistake," Armonett said, "and I'm sorry for it.”

Eppstein questions the accuracy and believability of Gilbert’s campaign, citing the multiple legal issues in the candidate's past — including a class C misdemeanor theft charge, citations by the IRS for failure to pay taxes, and recent rumors of political bribery. “Now Gilbert has proven to be an even more pathetic person by falsely using out-of-state deaths to cover up his own criminal and cheating past," Eppstein says. "To disrespect the families involved is despicable and the lowest a political campaign has ever stooped in Texas politics."

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