North Carolina agriculture commissioner and auditor in war of words over milk safety report

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Auditor responds to milk report criticism

NC State Auditor Beth Wood fired back Friday, a day after her report on milk safety was blasted by North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

The audit of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services found milk inspectors showed excessive lenience by not penalizing dairy farmers, processors, and transporters after finding hundreds of sanitation violations, many of them repeat problems.

But Troxler said Thursday that auditors offered no scientific evidence to show the milk supply is unsafe and called the report a "slap in the face to the whole dairy industry in North Carolina."

"We have a safe milk supply that is being inspected and regulated properly," said Troxler.

Troxler said the audit took a "sensational approach" and said he was concerned that the media knew about the publication of the report before his office did. A rebuttal from his department is included in the document.


Speaking with ABC11 Friday, Wood said she stands by the report.

"I've got an audit report that shows hundreds, hundreds of violations that have been repeated not just once but multiple times ... Sometimes up to six times. If this is an unimportant piece of safe milk, then what's the commissioner going to do about that?" asked Wood.

The report shows the department conducted more than 5,000 inspections during the past three years and only once took inspection action. It's the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to enforce sanitation requirements that keep the supply of Grade A milk safe for North Carolina consumers.

Wood's investigators found hundreds of problems with cleanliness at milking and handling facilities, including insect and rodent control, their report said.

One of Troxler's deputies who oversees food and drug protection efforts said Wednesday the agency is committed to keeping the state's food supply safe.

"None of the findings of the auditor's report demonstrate any imminent threat to public health," Assistant Commissioner Joe Reardon said in a prepared statement. "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."

But that ignores the federal guidelines that direct dairy farms, haulers or distributors with repeated violations of the same requirements in successive inspections should face court action of suspended permits, auditors said. The milk standard "recommends that regulatory agencies practice strict enforcement and not seek to excuse violations and defer penalties," the report said.

The report also lashed the Agriculture Department for poor organization and record-keeping after the agency struggled to find more than 4,100 inspection reports, lab results, warning or suspension letters and permits that were supposed to be in its inspection database. Most of the missing documents were stored at inspectors' personal residences, but it took 13 months to find the records and provide them to auditors, the report said. More than 50 documents were never found.

The Department of Agriculture is in a unique position. It regulates dairy permits while also marketing the Agriculture industry as a whole.

According to the report, one inspector explains, "we don't want to run (dairy farms) out of business and "they (are) losing money."

Reardon told ABC11 Wednesday there's no conflict of interest.

"Absolutely not. We take complete exception to that," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report
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