How Safe Is North Carolina’s Milk Supply?

North Carolina’s Milk Supply

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The state Auditor’s Office cited North Carolina’s dairy inspectors Wednesday for not doing enough to ensure the milk people pour on their cereal each morning is safe to drink.

In a 34-page report, State Auditor Beth Wood said the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has not enforced sanitation aggressively the standards for farms, milk haulers, processing plants and others involved in milk production.

“Specifically, inspections of Grade ‘A’ milk are too lenient,” Wood said. “By not taking enforcement actions, the department failed to prevent continued PMO (Pasteurized Milk Ordinance) violations and extended the period that the public was exposed to potential health risks.”

State Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler strongly disputed the findings, noting that his department’s inspection practices have been rated “a model national program” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulators.

“I take responsibility for ensuring the safety of our food supply very seriously,” Guilford County resident Troxler said in a cover letter responding to the audit. “There is nothing more important in determining the quality of a person’s life than the food they eat each day.”

In a formal response to this report, other officials in Troxler’s agency noted that agents routinely collect and test “samples of finished product…from every Grade ‘A’ processing plant in North Carolina.”

“During the scope of this audit (3 years), approximately 3,650 samples of finished product were collected and approximately 13,000 tests were conducted,” the agency said in its response to the audit, noting that only one of those samples showed signs of bacterial contamination.

“This occurrence resulted in the immediate suspension of the facility’s permit to produce this product,” agency officials said in their response to Wednesday’s report.

The report said that, during this audit, the department had under its supervision 207 dairy farms, 20 milk processing plants, 301 milk trucks and several hundred quality-control samplers. There were no specific individuals or companies named.

Auditors from Wood’s office said that in reviewing the agency’s data, they found inspectors had cited without punishing repeat offenders in:

155 cases involving a lack of cleanliness in milking barns, stables or parlor areas.

114 cases of insufficient insect and rodent control.

98 cases linked to poor milk-house sanitation.

“However, from July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2015, the department almost never suspended an entity’s Grade ‘A’ milk permit,” auditors said.

Despite multiple violations or critical comments from its inspectors, “the department did not document or explain why inspection-related enforcement actions were not taken,” auditors said.

“Inspectors circumvented the requirement to take enforcement action for violations found during two or more successive inspections by using the ‘remarks’ section of the inspection form,” Wood said. “Inspectors wrote comments about deficiencies in place of marking them as violations.”

Wood recommended that agricultural officials review their records, evaluate enforcement standards and require inspectors to justify any decision not to impose penalties after a milk producer chalks up repeated violations.

The department’s Grade A standards are enforced by a compliance officer, a state rating officer and five milk inspectors under the supervision of a dairy administrator, a position that currently is vacant.

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