Auditor fires back at ag commissioner over milk inspections

Posted June 23

— The hottest political feud in Raleigh is no longer Gov. Roy Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. For now, it's the milk fight between State Auditor Beth Wood and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

Wood on Friday fired back at Troxler's complaints over an audit her office released this week that stated milk inspectors for the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services are too lenient on dairies where repeated violations have been found.

"This is your inspection process, Department of Agriculture," Wood said during a news conference. "All this audit report is saying is this process is not happening – in fact, it's being circumvented. Department of Agriculture, fix your inspection process."

According to the audit, inspectors rarely took action when they noted repeated violations at dairy farms and milk processing plants. The report cited one case in which an inspector marked the same violations on six straight inspections without suspending the dairy's permit to market its milk as Grade A.

Troxler held his own news conference Thursday to dispute "inaccuracies" in the audit, which he said was based on outdated standards and focused on issues that had nothing to do with the safety of Grade A milk. Only one of the nearly 13,000 milk samples tested during the three-year period covered by the audit showed unacceptable bacteria levels, and that facility's permit to market its milk as Grade A was suspended, he said.

"The report offered no scientific evidence to suggest that the milk supply is unsafe, although the auditor has attempted to paint this picture through her personal opinion," Troxler said, calling the audit's findings "a slap in the face to the whole dairy industry in North Carolina."

"This audit and this report had nothing to do with dairy farmers," Wood said, noting that her grandfather was dairy farmer. "This report was only about the inspection process, the leniency and how often the Department of Agriculture inspectors would write up a violation or circumvent the writing up a violation process.

"(It) has nothing to do with dairy farmers. Why he brought those dairy farmers into this issue, I have no idea," she said.

Hundreds of violations of cleanliness and rodent and insect control were noted at dairies statewide over a three-year period, but only one Grade A permit was suspended in that time, the audit states.

"If it's significant enough to be called a violation, then follow up and make sure that violation gets corrected," Wood said, adding that the audit is based on 2015 federal standards.

She said she couldn't comment on the safety of milk in North Carolina, saying that isn't her job.

"It’s unfortunate she is waffling on the safety of the Grade A milk supply," Troxler said in a statement Friday. "I am not unclear about that issue. I am confident in the safety of the Grade A milk supply in North Carolina and the processes in place to ensure its safety."

Wood attributed the lax regulation on a "very probable conflict of interest," saying the agriculture department has to regulate dairy farms while also promoting their products.

"It is their job to do everything they can to preserve the No. 1 industry in our state, and at the same time, they turn around and are having to regulate that exact same industry," she said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services inspected dairy farms until 2011, when lawmakers shifted the job to the agriculture department. Any future changes are likewise up to lawmakers.

Wood said the agriculture department is notoriously uncooperative with auditors and isn't interested in hearing about deficiencies that may need to be addressed.

"It's probably the most difficult agency that we've had to deal with in my eight years as state auditor," she said. "I don't understand the attitude or the push back when we are only trying to do our job."

"There seems to be a disconnect between the auditor and her staff, based on feedback we got during this auditing process," Troxler said.


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  • Thomas White Jun 25, 8:18 a.m.
    user avatar

    It would be nice to know what deficiencies were found. Flies in a kitchen are one thing, but flies in a cow barn are a given. Mice in a cow barn is a given. Flies in the fields are a given. Tell us how the deficiency affected the milk.

  • Tom Harris Jun 24, 10:29 a.m.
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    "If it's significant enough to be called a violation, then follow up and make sure that violation gets corrected," Wood said, ...

    Hard to argue with that logic!

  • Henry Cooper Jun 24, 12:15 a.m.
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    View quoted thread

    Purdue Chicken recalled for being fed tainted food caused a recall after illnesses form salmonella .

    Listeria in the ready to eat salads from Resser (an Oregon company outsourcing to NC).

    E coli at the State fair that came from the farm animals.

    There are plenty if you look they just don't make the front page.

  • Clarence Hill Jun 23, 11:26 p.m.
    user avatar

    I assume inspections are made using a grading scale. Example, does a fly, mouse or a bug represent minus points to be subtracted from a 100% grade or instead is grounds to cancel a dairy's grade A permit? When in question, take a milk sample and let it make the decision. This appears to have been the practice of ag dairy inspectors. The complaint that inspectors keep their records at home is silly and has nothing to milk safety.

  • Joey Cuddington Jun 23, 10:31 p.m.
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    When was the last time we had a "problem" with NC produced milk products? Or any other NC agricultural product...

  • Henry Cooper Jun 23, 8:42 p.m.
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    It does not appear he is taking issues with her findings but saying the milk has been fine anyway isn't he?

    There are also concerns beyond the safety of the milk. The treatment of the animals, the safety of the employees.Mr. Troxler the end does not justify the means of your own process. What outdated standards? The ones in the operation procedures for diary farms and no one has bothered to update them?

    Normally an audit takes the standard procedure that is in place and looks for deviations from that. They do not make a procedure and then try to apply it.

    Sounds like a case of "do as I say not as the procedures say"... that no one has bothered to update".

    If they audited by the wrong procedure I am sure he would have mentioned that specifically but he did not.

  • Dawn Worthington Jun 23, 8:39 p.m.
    user avatar

    This is about who is doing their job and who is not. Auditor Wood is doing her job, so stop trying to make it partisan politics when she exposes those who are NOT DOING their job. This is her duty and to report it. If the milk inspectors were doing what they were supposed to be doing, then she would have reported it as such. She doesn't need to embarrass him, looks like he's more than capable of doing that on his own by making this personal when it wasn't about him personally in the first place.

  • Robert Swiger Sr. Jun 23, 5:04 p.m.
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    Liberal Woods trying to embarrass a good man

  • Bill Gibson Jun 23, 4:49 p.m.
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    Years ago, I was an inspector for a Government program and I held to the rules that were set before me. If the rules or the process is faulty, then they need to be changed. You don't need to circumvent the policy or it will never be fixed. State Ag could just go, "We change the rules, so that we ignore 10 times before doing something."