Health inspectors keep a close eye on food industry
Department of Agriculture inspects 18,000 businesses at all points in the food supply chain.
Business owners often feel like a child taking a test in school when the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is inspecting their operation.
The department’s director of food and dairy, Kevin Besey, prefers to think of the inspector as more of a business consultant. Besey said the inspector can answer questions and help guide business owners and managers to the resources they need to become successful.
He said the department often is able to help a business see a strategic direction.
“In a lot of ways, we’re the first people in contact with the businesses in terms of compliance,” Besey said. “The inspectors can pass on information to organizations that could help the business, or help them go down the right path in terms of compliance.”
The Department of Agriculture oversees Michigan’s food supply, which helps contribute more than $101.2 billion in economic impact from agriculture from 10 million acres of farms.
With only about 470 employees, the department is stretched a little bit, said Jennifer Holton, the department’s director of communication.
“We keep ourselves very busy,” Holton said. “All our employees in the field are mobile, working from their vehicles. It allows us to be more efficient and offer a lot more support for our food- and agriculture-based businesses.”
The department inspects approximately 18,000 business at all points in the food supply chain, consisting of fruit and vegetable growers, dairy farms, flour mills, bakeries, processing plants, breweries and distilleries, butcher shops, and anywhere food is stored and sold, such as grocery and convenience stores.
Places where food is readily prepared and served mostly for direct consumption fall under 45 local health departments, which are certified by the state’s department of agriculture. Those health departments regularly inspect 35,000 restaurants, schools and hospitals.
The inspectors of both state and local organizations are there to help make sure the population’s food supply is safe and in accordance with federal laws and regulations.
Besey said most business owners have the best intentions, and while disciplinary actions sometimes are needed, the inspectors are there to help guide the business in the right direction.
Approximately 48 million Americans are stricken with a food-borne illness every year, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths. Those totals might be even higher without the strict regulations of the government, Besey said.
During routine inspections, the state’s inspectors pull random products and send them back to the department’s lab for analysis. The testing of Sabra Dipping Co. hummus in April, for example, found the bacteria Listeria and resulted in a recall of more than 30,000 cases of hummus.
A few years ago, the Michigan department was also the linchpin in discovering a connection between Diamond brand dog food and human cases of salmonella, Holton said.
The random samples pulled by the inspectors often go along with national and international trends of what could make people sick, Besey said.
With a limited number of employees to handle inspections, Besey said establishments are assigned a risk factor and put on a cycle of six-, 12- and 18-month inspections. Until a recent legislative action, the department was under-resourced and the schedule was hard to keep, Besey said.
“To assign a risk, it all depends on what they do,” he said. “If they are cooking from scratch and running the food up and down through the danger zone, then there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong.
“A place with mostly packaged food, they’re much more limited in things that can go wrong.”
He said businesses can also move up or down the risk assessment scale based on their compliance history.
A Meijer store, for example, might have a strong compliance record, in large part because of a significant in-house quality assurance staff and processes.
“At that point we might come once a year instead of six months because they have enough support within their system to be a well-run organization,” he said. “We don’t have to be concerned that there’s something wrong.”
Besey said while consumers may be aware of obvious issues with sanitation, poor employee hygiene and sick employees, those represent only the front-end of a business. That’s why the public relies on a government agency to make sure companies are in compliance from start to finish.
“Inspectors see everything in the back. They ask questions, have in-depth interviews,” he said. “You really count on the inspector to see behind the scenes, which is where things are most likely to make you sick.”