Hoping for new milk inspectors

On The Farm

July 31, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

DAIRY FARMERS need to be careful about what they wish for. They might get it.

Take their desire to have their milk and farms inspected by the state Department of Agriculture rather than by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We think we would get a fair shake with the Department of Agriculture," said Robert Ramsburg, a Frederick County dairy farmer and president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association. "That's not always the case with the health department.

"The inspection division should be under [the Maryland Department of Agriculture]. If we have a complaint and we have go up the chain of command, I would rather talk to the secretary of agriculture than the Secretary of Health.

"I'd rather deal with a department whose mission statement is to protect and preserve farming in Maryland."

Ramsburg raised his concern last week at the initial meeting of the Dairy Regulatory Review Committee. The committee was formed recently at the request of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to - in the words of its chairman, James E. McClellan - "look at anything to do with milk in Maryland."

Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley and Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary S. Anthony McCann attended the meeting Thursday evening at the Great Frederick Fair Grounds.

Neither Cabinet member wholeheartedly supported Ramsburg's request.

James A. Vona, an executive with Dairy Maid Dairy Inc., in Fredrick, warned that such a switch could shake consumer confidence in the quality of milk.

Part of the economic plight of dairy farmers over the past 10 years has to do with a drop in milk consumption.

"We have a great amount of consumer confidence because we are regulated by the Board of Health," said Vona, who was in the audience. He said his company supplies milk to about 600,000 schoolchildren a day in 10 states.

Vona said transferring the inspection duties to the Department of Agriculture might give consumers the impression "that the fox is guarding the chicken coop."

He said consumers feel safe knowing that the health department controls their milk.

"The system we have now is working," Vona said. "We don't want to change it to the detriment of the industry."

Riley said it is too early for the committee to determine which agency should oversee milk safety.

McCann said the industry is changing and that it is the committee's job to sort out the problems faced by dairy farmers and try to resolve them.

"This is the first time you have seen the secretary of agriculture and the secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sitting at the same table trying to work out problems," Riley told the committee members.

Ted Elkin, chief of the division of milk control at the health department, said at the meeting that the federal government establishes milk regulations and that his agency has the responsibility of enforcing these regulations in Maryland.

Milk-control workers visit farms to make certain that the facilities and the equipment are clean. They check on the health of the cows and look for bacteria in the milk. They also search for signs that the cows are being treated with any illegal drugs.

Elkin said if the duties were transferred, the Agriculture Department would still have to enforce federal standards.

Boyd Cook, another member of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association serving on the committee, said the health department is viewed by farmers as the "guys with the hammer, the enforcer" and as unconcerned with keeping the industry viable.

As an example of what they viewed as insensitive action on the part of the health department, farmers recalled its action in dealing with an unlicensed milk hauler in October 2003.

When it was determined that the truck driver did not have a Maryland license to haul milk, the department ordered that the 36,000-pound shipment, valued at about $6,000, be dumped.

Farmers were outraged.

Elkin said the department was enforcing the law. He said the driver was licensed in Pennsylvania but not in Maryland.

"He had been warned in writing and verbally," Elkin said, "and the penalty was to dump the milk."

Elkin said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been increased pressure from federal Homeland Security officials on agencies such as his to protect the milk supply from terrorist attack. He said milk is most vulnerable during shipment, which is why the division of milk control is so particular about drivers' being licensed.

"These are the kind of issues we need to know about," said committee Chairman McClellan, a retired veterinarian and former delegate to the General Assembly.

"If changes need to be made, we will see that they are made," he said.

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