Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler has a beef with state auditors, who say his agency's inspectors aren't tough enough on dairies when handling out grades on their milk.
According to an audit released Wednesday, inspectors rarely took action when they noted repeated violations. In one case, for example, the inspector marked violations of the same two requirements for six successive inspections without suspending the dairy's permit to market its milk as Grade A.
"Inspectors circumvented the requirement to take enforcement action for violations found during two or more successive inspections by using the remarks section of the inspection form. Instead, inspectors wrote comments about deficiencies in place of marking them as violations," the audit states.
Auditors blamed the lax enforcement in part on the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services' dual role as regulator and promoter of North Carolina's agricultural products, but they said not docking dairies for violations puts consumers at risk. 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.
Troxler said he "respectfully disagree[s]" with the audit's findings and recommendations, maintaining that his department is "effectively enforcing the rules" of the Grade A milk program.
"I take my responsibilities serious to ensure the safety of food products manufactured, distributed and sold in North Carolina," Troxler said in his response to the audit.
The agency found only one instance of coliform bacteria in milk during the three-year period audited, and officials said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported no illness outbreaks related to pasteurized milk in North Carolina since at least 1998.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also called the state agriculture department "a model National Conference of Interstate Milk Shippers participant" in 2014 and 2017 reviews, with average enforcement scores on the Grade A milk program of 97.5 to 99.8 percent.
Auditors said, however, that those scores are primarily based on procedural issues.
"Only one of the enforcement method categories actually measured how well state inspectors identified violations and marked them on the inspection sheets," the audit states. "For approximately 32% and 26% of the Dairy Farm inspections that the FDA reviewed, FDA inspectors identified conditions that state inspectors should have marked as a violation on the inspection sheets, but did not."
The audit also dinged the department on its record keeping, noting hundreds of documents were located at an inspector's home instead of in a state database and that it took more than a year to retrieve some records.