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Ag & Markets audit gives agency a black eye

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This week, we looked at a state comptroller’s audit of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets that had some sharp criticisms of the department’s food inspection programs and peeled back some layers that show that sometimes, you can cut staff too far in an attempt to show taxpayers how lean and mean you can get.

The audit, in a nutshell, said that the department’s inspections of food processing and preparation businesses was woefully inadequate to the task. It suggested the agency has let the staff get too small to respond to its inspection mandates, and that as a result, there was a lack of timely inspections. The audit painted a very uncomplimentary picture of a department that is of real significance to the north country and the rest of the state.

Reporter Ted Booker, in an attempt to find out what the delayed inspections meant here, obtained from the comptroller’s office a list of inspections that had not yet been made even though the businesses had opened to customers. Two of them were in Northern New York, according to the list, but when we contacted those businesses, one showed us that it had been inspected in May and opened in June, and the other showed that it was not subject to an inspection because it was merely a change of ownership of a deli department that had been inspected regularly before its sale.

What’s going on here, we wondered?

So after going back to the comptroller’s office to find out how this happened, it has become clear that the problem within Ag and Markets is probably deeper than even the audit shows.

Comptroller’s Deputy Press Secretary Mark Johnson pointed out that the office’s audits all rely on data they are provided by the subject of the audit.

“Data provided to the comptroller’s office was erroneous, Mr. Johnson said. “It was sort of emblematic of the problems at Ag and Markets.”

It certainly proved the old computer adage, garbage in, garbage out. The comptroller’s staff can’t very well provide accurate examples of their findings when the examples they’re given aren’t accurate. And since the erroneous information provided by the department served to make it look worse than it was, you have to wonder just how deep the problems run.

For Ag and Markets, the audit was a significant black eye. Among the tasks of the department that reach well beyond the pasture and barnyard, food service inspections probably touch more people in the state than any other function. Along with the state Health Department, Ag and Markets is the only real line of defense between the consumer and bad food. The department inspects processing plants, grocery stores, delis and convenience stores, restaurants — just about everywhere food is prepared, in one way or another, for consumption.

And the comptroller’s audit did not find that the department didn’t know what it is doing; on the contrary, it noted that the state’s food-safety recall program is second to none, comparing it favorably to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety program. But when it comes to getting people in the field to do these jobs, Ag and Markets falls down — in some cases, badly.

Mr. Johnson noted that Ag and Markets responded quickly and positively to the audit. Some changes have already been made. But when one of the fundamental problems is a shortage of staff, the fix for the department will not be instantaneous. This is not an accounting problem — it’s an accountability problem.

The Department of Agriculture and Markets is important in any region with as large an agriculture presence as there is in the north country. But its food safety program has a statewide reach, and the state has an obligation to make sure it has the tools to run that program. The department stumbled but it’s trying to right itself. State budget officials and legislators have to make sure it regains its footing.

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