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Worry Over Retiring Milk Inspectors

February 22, 2002

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Dairy farmers and officials say New England’s milk industry could be thrown into turmoil if cash-strapped Massachusetts fails to replace its retiring milk inspectors.

Three of the state’s four inspectors are due to retire in the next two months, and a state hiring freeze could mean they won’t be replaced for a while.

Though state and federal laws prohibit the sale of uninspected milk for human consumption, the inspectors are classified as nonessential employees. It will take special approval to replace them, and the option is being considered.

The inspectors, who are paid between $30,000 and $35,000 a year, check the safety and purity of raw milk as it moves from farms to tanker trucks to processing plants.

``It’s too scary. Especially now with all the concerns about bioterrorism and the safety of our food,″ said Agriculture Commissioner Jonathan Healy, who has decided to retire due to the inspector situation and other deep cuts in his department.

The impact could stretch far beyond the state’s 256 dairy farmers. While the state imports the bulk of its milk from other New England states and New York, most of the processing is concentrated in Massachusetts plants.

``Boston is the hub of the New England milk industry and we are responsible for checking every drop of milk that comes into the state,″ said James Hines, who heads the Agriculture Department’s dairy division.

Agreements vary from state to state, but Massachusetts’ inspectors also check the bulk of the out-of-state tankers that bring raw milk into the state, he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees the states’ inspections with spot checks, he said.

``People are so used to having a safe milk supply that they take it for granted,″ Hines said. ``But it is safe, because of all the layers of checks.″

Byron Moyer, Hines’ counterpart in Vermont, said ``it would be absolutely catastrophic″ if Massachusetts cannot complete the inspections. Vermont farmers sell most of their product to producers in Massachusetts.

``It’s good for the consumers and the farmers to have objective enforcers of the state’s regulations. The state inspectors are not part of the industry,″ said Doug DiMento, a spokesman for the Agri-mark Cooperative, the region’s largest with 1,400 farmers in New England and New York.

``We’re dealing with a very perishable product and it needs to be checked,″ agreed Sam Shields, a Middleboro dairyman. Still, he said, he was optimistic that the retiring inspectors would be replaced.

``It’s a public health issue,″ Shields said. ``If it isn’t settled you will see consumers and processors joining in the uproar.″

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