Raleigh, N.C. — 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Troxler held his own news conference Thursday to dispute "inaccuracies" in the audit, which he said was based on outdated standards and focused on issues that had nothing to do with the safety of Grade A milk.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.