Troxler fires back after state audit criticizes milk inspections

N.C. Agriculture commissioner says dairy is safe

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler responds to a recent audit from the North Carolina State Auditor during a press conference at the Agriculture Building in downtown Raleigh

RALEIGH — N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler held a press conference Thursday blasting an audit from the state that accused the agency of slacking off on some milk producer inspections in the Grade A program. N.C. produces about a billion gallons of milk each year. “I want to make it clear that we have a safe milk supply that is being inspected and regulated properly in North Carolina, and to draw any other conclusion is false,” Troxler said Thursday at the Department of Agriculture building in downtown Raleigh. The comments came in response to a audit released this week from the state auditor’s office that focused on the agency’s process of inspections and reporting and made no comment on the actual safety of N.C.’s milk products. The audit said N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which conducted 5,040 inspections during this period, had 457 instances where the inspector wrote comments about the same deficiency during two or more successive inspections but did not mark the deficiency as a violation. “I want to be careful that everybody understand that the state auditor’s office is not out there saying that the milk you are drinking is bad,” said Auditor Beth Wood in a phone interview. “What we are saying is that the inspection process is too lenient and could provide issues moving forward. Does pasteurization take care of all thing that are being let go? Who knows.”Troxler criticized the audit saying it suggests that every issue on a farm warrants a permit suspension. Instead, he says inspectors for the Department of Agriculture use common sense and expertise to assess if a problem could pose an imminent health threat to the consumer. “If there is an imminent health concern, we’re there, we will take action — no questions asked,” said Troxler.The Centers for Disease Control reported no foodborne illnesses linked to pasteurized milk in N.C. from 1998 to 2015, which includes the period during the scope of the audit.Auditors acknowledged that inspectors are permitted to use their discretion in determining which violations were serious enough threats to public safety to warrant taking action against milk producers in the form of fines, suspended licenses or shutdowns. “It is important to remember that the purpose of regulating an industry is to gain compliance,” said Troxler in a statement prior to meeting the press on Thursday. “It is our policy and belief that education brings about compliance quicker and more efficiently than regulatory action such as civil penalties, lawsuits and criminal proceedings.” The report’s primary complaint was that the paperwork from inspectors reported the same violations on successive inspections or did not comment enough on the nature of violations. The audit said there was only one incidence of a plant’s permit being suspended during this period. The department says that it was when samples from a milk producer showed that high levels of coliform bacteria warranting the permit be immediately suspended. Still, the audit said that too often the inspectors are not following their processes when a violation is reported.”Their own form puts you one, on notice that you have a violation, and two, says if you’ve got violations and then on the next inspections it’s not cleared up… it could cause you to lose your permit. That’s their own form and they are not abiding by it,” she said.The accusations have certainly ruffled some feathers at the Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for inspecting and advocating for N.C.’s $177 million dairy industry. Troxler, a Republican who says his department spent more than 2,600 man hours complying with the audit, claims that the Office of the State Auditor led by Democrat Beth Wood sensationalized what was supposed to be an independent study. “The report offered no scientific evidence to suggest our milk supply is unsafe, although the auditor has attempted to paint this picture through her personal opinion,” began Troxler.”[Wood’s] editorial comment [Wednesday] about the safety of Grade A milk is a slap in the face of the whole dairy industry in North Carolina, and I do believe that she owes them an apology.” N.C. ranks 28th in milk production in the nation and 24th in number of licensed dairy operations. According to Troxler, the department inspects Grade A dairy producers at more than twice the frequency required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, collecting monthly samples of milk and milk products from producers across the state.Troxler took issue with several points in the report, among them is the auditor’s assessment of the inspection rules around hand-milking cows. The Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, which is a “best practices” standard that N.C. and many other states have adopted, prohibits hand milking. As result, no Grade A program milk producers hand milk their cows. They all use machines to milk their cows and have for decades. He indicated that the inclusion of hand milking demonstrates a disconnect between the auditors and those who know the dairy industry well.Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for consumer protection at the department, also pointed out Thursday that only one of the auditors had prior experience in the agriculture industry. He said they anticipated a learning curve, so inspectors made an effort to explain animal agriculture and processing when auditors visited the dairy farms. “But a one-day visit to a farm don’t explain the complexities of pasteurized milk and all the processes that go into ensuring the safety of the milk supply,” Reardon said. According to the department, the Grade A Milk Program in North Carolina is check-rated on an annual basis by the FDA, and has averaged enforcement ratings of 97.5 to 99.8 percent for the past six years. The Office of the State Auditor has issued audits of other agencies over the past several years. According to the state auditor’s website, the agency audits all 17 state universities each year, 58 community colleges and all state clerks of court on a rotating basis, and 36 state programs. In this case, the audit was triggered by a tip phoned in to the agency hotline that suggested the department’s inspectors were “too cozy” with the milk producers. Wood said they turned their attention to the inspection reports for the audit of reported violations.She used an example of a screen door that was reported as being left open on multiple inspections, but was not determined by the inspector to be egregious enough to take action.”If that is a nonviolation, than why are you even writing it up in the first place?” Wood said.The N.C. Department of Agriculture regulates 207 dairy farms, 20 milk-processing plants, 407 milk haulers and samplers, 301 milk trucks and 16 single-serve manufacturers.Wood has scheduled a press conference Friday at 10 a.m. at the state auditor’s office in Raleigh.