Is our milk safe? State regulators dispute NC audit that found flawed inspections

Reid Smith, president of the N.C. Dairy Producers Association, said inspectors and dairy farmers are working together to ensure quality.
Reid Smith, president of the N.C. Dairy Producers Association, said inspectors and dairy farmers are working together to ensure quality. News and Observer file photo

State inspectors go too easy on dairies and other businesses that bring milk from cows to cartons, exposing the public to health risks, according to a state audit.

The state Department of Agriculture disagreed with the audit and its conclusions. The inspection program is solid and milk is safe, said Joe Reardon, the department’s assistant commissioner for consumer protection.

“In no case in this state do we feel that any product has ever been produced, packed, or held or distributed that’s ever presented a health risk while under the governance of our department,” he said.

The agriculture department enforces cleanliness requirements for Grade “A” milk at dairy farms, milk trucks, processing plants and other businesses that handle milk. The inspectors are responsible for making sure businesses on the milk production supply chain adhere to federal standards.

State Auditor Beth Wood said Reardon was downplaying problems with lack of cleanliness inspectors repeatedly found at dairy farms. The sanitation problems may not present immediate health hazards, she said, but they are still a risk.

“You have flies week in and week out, and rodent droppings, handling of dirty milking stools – it’s just a matter of time. It’s not overnight,” she said. “Am I comfortable with the Grade ‘A’ milk I’m drinking? No.”

Reid Smith, president of the N.C. Dairy Producers Association, said consumers shouldn’t worry about their milk. Inspectors and dairy farmers are working together to ensure quality, said Smith, a Lexington farm owner.

In addition to quarterly state inspections, milk truck drivers test milk for antibiotics and bacteria.

“We take this quality milk thing very seriously,” Smith said. “We want to have a quality product for the consumer because our livelihoods depend on it.”

Grade “A” milk is produced under sanitary conditions that make it suitable to drink. Grade “B” milk can be used only for certain dairy products – cheese, for example.

The audit found that state inspectors didn’t suspend permits, as they should have, when they found repeat violations. Federal regulations call for strict enforcement, the audit said, requiring “suspension of permits and/or court action” if inspectors find the same problems twice in a row.

Inspectors have a choice in marking a problem as a violation or making notes on problems they find in a comment section. Inspectors were circumventing the rules to avoid recording repeated problems as violations, Wood said.

In three years, from July 2012 to June 2015, the department almost never suspended a Grade “A” permit despite repeated violations, the audit said. Inspectors don’t explain in writing their decisions to not enforce rules, but they should, the audit said.

Out of 5,040 inspections, only one company lost its permit, Wood said.

The audit found 50 instances where inspectors found the same deficiency in two or more successive inspections without suspending permits. In one case, the inspector found the same two deficiencies on six successive visits without taking the permit, the audit said.

The audit also reported:

▪ 474 times inspectors marked a violation on one visit and made a written comment on the second visit rather than mark it as a violation; 66 times, the inspector alternated between marking violations and making comments over three or more inspections.

▪ 457 times inspectors wrote comments about the same deficiency over two or more inspections, but did not mark them as violations.

As a result, “the public was exposed to potential health risks,” the audit said.

Auditors counted 155 instances of dirty barns, stables or milking-machine rooms that were allowed to persist. These included:

▪ 114 instances related to insect and rodent control;

▪ 98 violations of cleanliness rules in rooms where milk is processed.

Reardon said inspectors look for imminent health hazards but are expected to use their judgment to strike a balance on minor violations.

“We stand behind the process that we use to educate before you regulate,” he said.

Both the agriculture department and the audit pointed to FDA reports on the milk inspection program to bolster their arguments. The department pointed to average ratings near 100 percent.

The audit said those same reports show that FDA inspectors found that state inspectors don’t always mark violations as they should.

The audit questioned whether the agriculture department can both promote farm products and properly regulate milk producers.

Wood said it would be better for another agency to do the inspections.

“The farmers are near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “It’s hard to have that heart and turn around and regulate them, too.”

In his official written response, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said the department is effectively enforcing the rules and the audit recommendations will add “minimal value to the public health protection mandates” of the department.

At the time of the audit, the department regulated 207 dairy farms, 20 milk processing plants, 301 milk trucks, and other entities involved milk production and distribution.

The state produces an average of 1 billion pounds of milk each year.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner