News: Quick Takes

Agriculture Department, auditor clash over milk safety

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bristled Wednesday at a state audit that found the department failed to responsibly enforce sanitary requirements at dairy farms and milk plants to keep Grade “A” milk safe for consumers.

In a contentious report outlining the findings, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler disputed every allegation.

State Auditor Beth Wood criticized Troxler’s denials as misleading.

According to the audit, inspectors were too lenient. They failed to suspend milk permits or take other enforcement action when violations of the same requirements were found during two or more successive inspections.

Instead of marking deficiencies as violations, inspectors merely wrote comments about them, circumventing a suspension requirement of the federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Some inspectors told auditors they didn’t want to put dairy farmers out of business, and that the farmers were losing money.

Those practices extended the time people were exposed to potential health risks, the audit concluded.

Troxler said milk safety is of utmost concern, and inspectors are effectively enforcing the rules. He said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined the department has “a model national program that consistently achieves high ratings for enforcement actions.”

Further, the response noted, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported no foodborne outbreaks associated with North Carolina pasteurized milk products from 1998 through 2015.

The audit covered July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015.

He said department staff spent more than 2,600 hours assisting auditors at an estimated cost of $135,000. The department had to temporarily suspend routine inspections to meet audit response requirements.

Wood’s rebuttal said much of the time Agriculture Department staff spent assisting auditors was searching for records and other documents improperly stored for immediate retrieval, kept in inspectors’ homes, and not backed up anywhere, putting them at risk of being lost or destroyed. Some of the documents sought were never found.

She said while Troxler’s response showed high percentage compliance from other regulatory agencies in the department’s milk inspection and enforcement, he used averages to defend the program, which masked problems with individual dairy farms and milk plants.

The audit reviewed 2,235 total inspections from dairy farms, 234 inspections of milk processing plants, 107 inspections of single-service manufacturers, 23 inspections of milk haulers and samplers, 27 inspections of plant samplers, and 15 inspections of milk trucks.

The audit showed:

  • 50 instances in which inspectors marked the same deficiency as a violation in two or more successive inspections without suspending the permit. In one case, the inspector marked violations of the same two requirements for six successive inspections without suspending the permit.
  • 474 instances where the inspector marked a deficiency as a violation and included comments describing the violation. Then the inspector wrote the same comments during the next inspection but did not mark the deficiency as a violation.
  • 66 instances in which inspectors alternated between commenting on a deficiency and marking the deficiency as a violation over the span of three or more inspections.
  • 457 instances in which the inspector wrote comments about the same deficiency during two or more successive inspections but did not mark the deficiency as a violation.
  • 155 instances related to milking barn, stable, or parlor cleanliness.
  • 114 instances related to insect and rodent control.
  • 98 instances related to milk house cleanliness. Compliance in those areas is vital to prevent contamination and spread of disease.

The department, the report says, took one enforcement action in three years, suspending a Grade “A” milk permit after violations related to seven inspection requirements. No documentation was given to show why that action was taken when none of the other facilities were cited, the audit stated.

In its response, the department said 3,650 samples were taken of finished product during the audit term, and 13,000 tests were conducted. Only one plant showed a violation. It consisted of three samples in which coliform bacteria exceeded allowable limits. The facility’s permit was immediately suspended. That represented .08 of 1 percent of all samples in three years.