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Inspection System for Milk-Products Plants Questioned

Times Staff Writer

As a result of the current outbreak of food poisoning and deaths linked to cheese produced by Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., state officials are now questioning the adequacy of inspections of milk-products plants in California.

A review of the inspection program run by the state Department of Food and Agriculture shows that:

- Inspectors have failed to conduct as many sanitation and pasteurization checks at the 42 cheese-manufacturing plants throughout California as department guidelines require.

- After a check, individual inspectors have considerable latitude on whether to file a written report on violations they have identified.

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- In recent years, at a time when dairy production in the state has been increasing, the department has cut back on the staff of its milk and dairy-products unit. Next month, the department expects to add four inspectors, to bring the total up to 47--still short of the 1980 level.

- While state law sets out a rigorous inspection schedule for dairies, there is no similar requirement for makers of cheeses and other milk products, even though the possibility of contamination exists. However, it is currently state policy to conduct inspections of cheese makers.

Because of the deaths of 43 people from an unusual bacterial infection linked to the Jalisco Mexican-style cheeses, two legislative committees are now planning hearings on the episode.

“A standard (for milk-products inspections) needs to be established in the law,” said Michael Falasco, consultant to the Assembly Committee on Agriculture, which is planning a hearing in Los Angeles later this week.

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And in the aftermath of one of the worst food-borne epidemics in recent history, top state Food and Agriculture Department officials are now conceding that they may need to tighten up the inspection system.

“We’re going to have to change procedures, tighten procedures,” said Hans Van Nes, deputy director of the department, “even if it means more people. We have to have this so that the public can have confidence in these products.

“We know that whatever we do, no one can ever guarantee that this will never happen again. But we need to put the system under the microscope.”

Inspections Defended

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Van Nes said emphatically that the system in place in California is a good one. The proof, he said, is that only rarely have serious disease outbreaks been traced to dairy products.

Officials of the State Department of Health Services note that of seven food recalls ordered since 1963, none involved a dairy product.

But if the record of the dairy industry appeared good until now, details of the inspection program revealed during the Jalisco outbreak have not been reassuring.

At a press conference last week, for example, state Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill said that department policy requires at least three sanitation inspections and four pasteurization checks each year for every milk-products plant.

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Short of the Goal

But statistics compiled by the department indicate that inspectors have fallen short of that goal. Later in the week, the department released statistics on the types of inspections conducted at 42 cheese plants covered by state guidelines since the beginning of 1984. On average, inspectors conducted only 2.3 sanitation inspections of each plant per year. And they averaged 2 1/2 pasteurization checks of each unit per year.

At Jalisco, only one sanitation inspection was conducted this year before the company’s products were suspected of being contaminated with Listeria bacteria. The bacterium has proven deadly for some who consumed the products, particularly pregnant women and newborns.

And after that lone inspection, the state inspector failed to put his findings into writing for more than two months. According to Van Nes, the delayed report was written after the problems at the plant were identified. The inspector wrote from memory and not from details he recorded in a notebook, as officials first indicated, Van Nes said. The inspector’s notebook only confirms that he examined the plant on the day indicated in the report he submitted this month, Van Nes said.

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Inspection records at Jalisco also reveal that the department performed only six pasteurization checks since the beginning of 1982, instead of the 14 that should have been conducted under department policy. However, two of those tests were done in the first months of 1985, which satisfies state guidelines.

Leaks at Jalisco Plant

Although Food and Agriculture Department officials repeatedly said that the pasteurizer at the Jalisco plant appeared to be operating properly, test results released Friday indicated that there were pinhole leaks in the equipment. A chemical test of the contaminated cheese has led investigators to suspect that the cheese may not have been properly pasteurized.

Whether routine inspections should have detected the problem is still unclear.

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There are no firm rules on whether inspectors must put their findings in writing or even whether they must record inspection visits in a standard date book, according to Morris Holt, the state inspection program’s Sacramento regional administrator.

Holt said that it is not unusual for inspectors to point out problems informally in conversation at milk-products plants, if managers have a good record of promptly correcting deficiencies.

‘Their Own Bosses’

“Our inspectors are college graduates who majored in dairy production,” Holt said. “They’re out there in their own territory in their cars. They are their own bosses. We haven’t imposed that they write it all down. To many of these managers, it’s just a whole lot of paper work.”

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Holt also said that last month the department toughened its inspection standards. “With the old score card, the plant had to be in real bad shape to go below 80% (the minimum passing score),” he said.

Holt and others who run the inspection program say that they are proud of their record and national reputation. State and county inspectors in California have long conducted testing of milk and milk products for the U.S. government. To do so, state inspectors must show that they can meet federal standards.

California has continued to do so, according to Richard L. Tate, chief of the state’s milk and dairy foods control branch. California inspectors have scored consistently well on federal checks of their work, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

‘Record Is Excellent’

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“Historically for the amount of milk processed in the state, our public health record is excellent,” Tate said.

Last year, state and county inspectors condemned or downgraded about 20 million pounds of milk or milk products, according to state figures. A large part of the total is raw milk, which is rerouted for making other products. And harmful bacteria are destroyed with the further processing.

Traditional cheeses have rarely been a problem, in part because the fermenting and aging process eliminates dangerous bacteria. That is one reason, according to Tate and others, that less-frequent inspections have been required for cheese producers than for milk plants.

But the Mexican-style cheeses are packaged fresh--without aging. And, according to state officials, they pose a potential health hazard if not prepared under the same kind of sanitation and pasteurization standards that govern milk production. State law requires that plants producing pasteurized milk be inspected monthly. However, there is no requirement--other than department policy--that cheese plants ever be inspected.

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