North Carolina milk inspectors showed excessive lenience by not penalizing dairy farmers, processors and transporters after finding hundreds of sanitation violations, many of them repeat problems, a state report released Wednesday said.
State Auditor Beth Wood's investigators faulted the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is responsible for enforcing sanitation requirements that keep the supply of Grade A milk safe for consumers.
"The period that the public was exposed to potential health risks" was expanded by the Agriculture Department failing to demand compliance with federal standards for processing and producing milk, the auditor's report said.
State agriculture inspectors found hundreds of problems with cleanliness at milking and handling facilities, including insect and rodent control, their report said.
Yet after more than 5,000 inspections over a three-year period, only one operation's permit was suspended for repeated violations, auditors said. The Agriculture Department didn't offer any documentation explaining why that one business' Grade A milk permit was suspended when others in similar circumstances escaped sanction, auditors said.
State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler disputed the findings. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives his agency high ratings for enforcement actions, Troxler said in an agency rebuttal included in the report.
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.