Reality Check: Audit concludes Grade "A" milk inspections too lenient, create health risk

The dairy industry refutes the audit's conclusions (Courtesy: WLOS)

A new report from the State Auditor concludes Grade "A" milk inspections are too lenient and could be putting your health at risk.

The Department of Agriculture inspects 16 Grade "A" milk producers in Haywood, Buncombe, and Henderson Counties. There are no places the state Department of Agriculture inspects for Grade "A" milk in Madison County.

News 13 requested inspection reports for all of the places during the time of the audit, and counted 58 violations in 168 total inspections. The audit examined inspections from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2015. Some of the comments on inspection reports included:

  • "Numerous rat droppings observed in and around 'Kid Barn..."
  • "Knock spider webs down"
  • "Numerous flies observed in milk room..."

The Auditor found the Department of Agriculture suspended one permit statewide in more than 5,000 inspections.

The audit stated not every deficiency is a violation, and not every violation deserves a suspension, but the Auditor wants inspectors to explain why they don't consider something a violation and why they don't take more enforcement action.

"It's a black eye for the dairy industry," Milkco President Keith Collins said.

Dairy farmers felt similarly.

"Every day is Monday, 365, rain, snow or shine," Aubrey Wells, a dairy farmer in Leicester, said.

He said inspectors usually visit four times a year, and the inspections usually last about 30-45 minutes.

"You never know then they're coming," Wells said.

In 13 inspections during the time of the audit, Wells received two violations for a door to the tank room being open and buildup on a pipe.

"I don't think the inspectors are lenient at all. Inspectors do their job. That's what they're paid to do," Wells said.

His milk goes to Milkco, which is one of four main processing plants in the state. An Ingles subsidiary owns it, and ships the milk to several states. The president of Milkco considers inspections a challenge to get better.

"If we don't do our job properly, we're not going to be in business long. So, we want to find something before the inspector finds it," Collins explained.

Through the time of the audit, inspectors gave Milkco nine violations in 13 inspections. Inspectors cited Milkco for things like ceiling panels missing and a door open.

"I would say they're minor," said Collins characterizing the violations.

If an inspector finds the same violation in consecutive inspections, then the place's permit is supposed to be suspended. This didn't appear to happen to Milkco, but statewide the Auditor found 474 cases where there was a first violation, and in the next inspection the inspector wrote about the same problem as a comment instead of giving a violation and suspension.

"We feel like we're doing a great job and we ought to be proud of it instead of being criticized," Collins said.

The audit also reported the agriculture department has a conflict of interest, because it's charged with promoting agriculture and also regulating it. The department started conducting the inspections in 2011. Dairy producers don't think this is a problem.

"They milk people are consuming is that of the highest quality," Wells told News 13.

The audit raises health concerns, but never answers if the milk is safe to consume. The Department of Agriculture said it is, and a spokesperson for the Auditor said it is not their role to contradict the Department of Agriculture. The audit focused on the inspection process, and the Department of Agriculture refuted its findings.

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