Dairy review cuts panned

March 5, 2011
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One line item of Gov. Rick Snyder’s new budget calls for replacing the state’s dairy farm inspectors, which he said would save the state’s general fund $600,000. Instead of the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s Food and Dairy Division making the safety inspections, the governor wants to use dairy industry field representatives who are certified by the MDA.

The Food and Dairy Division now has 12 inspectors who scrutinize the 3,600 dairy farms in Michigan that produce Grade A and 401 manufacturing milk to ensure they meet state standards. The division also checks for sanitary conditions at cheese factories, butter plants and ice cream facilities.

“We have 12 dairy inspectors in Michigan and no positions will be eliminated,” said Susan Esser, acting director of the MDA’s food and dairy division.

Esser said six inspectors retired last year, and those positions won’t be filled. So the savings the governor is calling for comes from not filling those vacant posts and from zeroing out the expense involved with inspecting dairy farms.

“The 12 remaining dairy inspectors will inspect the processing plants. They will also inspect the milk haulers, milk trucks; they will do pasteurization checks, and we will continue to have oversight of the industry inspections, as well,” said Esser, who added that the state’s inspection program has worked well for decades.

The state’s dairy sector is the leading segment of Michigan’s agriculture industry; it provides a $5.1 billion boost to the economy and ranks ninth nationally in milk production. By comparison, the economic value of the state’s livestock segment for cattle and hogs is $546 million, while poultry and eggs are worth $212 million annually. All figures come from the MDA.

Kent County Commissioner Bill Hirsch has been a dairy farmer for more than two decades and he isn’t thrilled with the idea of replacing state inspectors with industry representatives, who, in his case, would be employees of the co-op that buys milk from him and then sells it to local dairies. 

“It’s kind of like supervising yourself, and I think oversight from somebody else is better than overseeing yourself,” he said. “If the industry is buying the milk and they’re doing the inspections, I don’t know if this is the right thing to say, but they could look the other way rather than say (a problem) needs to be corrected.”

Hirsch thinks that conflicts of interest could pop up with milk buyers inspecting dairy farms. He said this possible scenario is similar to someone interested in buying a used car and having the dealer’s mechanic inspect the vehicle.

Hirsch said a state inspector visits his farm two or three times a year, and all the inspections are unannounced. An inspector will make more visits, also unannounced, to a farm that is having some sort of problem. He said every visit results in a milk sample being tested for antibiotics and bacteria levels.

If the inspection system does change, Hirsch is concerned that milk coming from Michigan could be seen in the national market as not being as safe as milk that comes from other milk-producing states that use state inspectors. He felt there was another reason the state should be cautious about changing the inspection system.

“I think if there is any state in the United States that ought to be concerned about state milk inspection, food safety and the quality of milk, it absolutely should be Michigan,” Hirsch said. “And the reason for this is 1973. Do you remember PBB? That was a fire retardant that was put in the feed for dairy cattle.”

According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the polybrominated biphenyls crisis resulted in more than 500 farms being labeled as contaminated and quarantined. Approximately 30,000 cattle, 4,500 pigs, 1,500 sheep and 1.5 million chickens were destroyed. In addition, 800 tons of animal feed, 18,000 pounds of cheese, 2,500 pounds of butter, 5 million eggs, and 34,000 pounds of dried milk products were also destroyed.

The feed mix-up wasn’t discovered until April 1974, roughly 15 months after the Michigan Chemical Co. in St. Louis accidentally sent about 20 50-pound bags of PBB to the Michigan Farm Bureau Services instead of a cattle feed called NutriMaster. Testing in the late 1970s showed that about 97 percent of the state’s residents had measurable levels of PBB contamination, which was passed on to newborns through breast feeding. Later tests revealed the PBB levels hadn’t declined, as the chemical remained in people’s bodies.

“Regardless of whether I’m a dairy farmer or not, or what my milk is valued at, the safety of our food in our state and in our country is a top priority. And if they think for a minute that somebody of a lower caliber is going to do a better job than a state milk inspector, they should think twice. And I think Gov. Snyder ought to get a hold of (former) Gov. Milliken,” said Hirsch. William Milliken was governor during the PBB outbreak.

In addition to changing the milk inspection program, Snyder has proposed that the MDA stop collecting and analyzing feed samples for nutritional content. His office said that move would save the general fund another $250,000.

Overall, the governor’s budget reduces total funding to the MDA in 2012 to $71.5 million from $76.5 million this year, for a cut of 6.5 percent. The general fund’s share of MDA funding will drop to $27.1 million in 2012 from $30.3 million this year, a decline of 10.5 percent.

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