LANSING (AP) — A Michigan agency took too long to check dairies, groceries and food-processing plants for safety — in some cases waiting a dozen years to conduct inspections that the state wants done every six, 12 or 18 months, according to an audit released Thursday.
Auditors also found that inspectors were tardy taking follow-up visits to sites with safety violations.
The Snyder administration acknowledged the delays but downplayed the significance, saying no laws were broken.
“We didn’t miss the mark on high-risk stuff,” said Jaime Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “At no time have we lost control of the food safety system in the state or put the consumer at risk.”
The audit looked at the performance of the agency’s Food and Dairy Division from October 2009 through May 2012. Its roughly 100 workers are responsible for licensing and inspecting more than 21,000 dairy farms, grocery stores, food processors, farmer’s markets and warehouses.
Local health departments handle inspections of 46,000 restaurants, bars, coffee shops, cafeterias and other eateries — which were not covered by the audit.
Auditor General Thomas McTavish flagged the Food and Dairy Division for two “material” violations and four less serious matters. The state agreed with his nine recommendations for improvement.
Of 600 routine inspections of dairy farms, facilities and trucks, 101 — or 17 percent — were 30 or more days late. The state did not schedule 133, or 69 percent, of 192 re-inspections of places with violations worthy of a follow-up visit, according to the audit.
Auditors also said almost half of the routine inspections for 13,200 groceries, convenience stores and other food establishments were not done on time. Nearly 300 had not been inspected in 7 ½ to 12 years.
Adams said long delays are unacceptable, but they typically happened at low-risk facilities — those with prepackaged food — and less in high-risk places like milk and cheese producers. Inspectors were slow to get to 8 percent of high-risk dairy farms and processing plants, according to the audit.
Part of the problem, the agency said, was the retirement of six of 25 dairy workers in late 2010. Some inspections were turned over to the industry so inspectors could focus on enforcement. As of March 1, funding was restored and state inspectors are again responsible for inspecting all dairy farms and facilities.
The state also was short 10 or 11 employees for food inspections, auditors concluded.
Adams, who took over the department last year after the period covered by the audit, faulted a shoddy computer system, saying it is forcing inspectors to waste time resubmitting reports electronically. She hopes to install a new computer program early next year.
Assuming productivity increases, Adams said, she may have a better case asking Gov. Rick Snyder to propose funding to hire more food inspectors.