From the tractor
by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler
Every so often I like to use this column to highlight the work of divisions of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. With the recent recall of fish from Vietnam, I thought it would be a good time to talk about food safety and the role the department plays in checking our food products.
Food safety is a top priority of the department and one that I see becoming a bigger issue for consumers. Unfortunately, it is something we sometimes tend to take for granted until a large recall makes the news.
We are fortunate to have one of the safest food supplies in the world, but no one will tell you any system is perfect. There are lots of opportunities in the food chain for food to come in contact with potentially sickening bacteria – including our own kitchens.
Many countries have different rules involving food production, and it is safe to say the United States’ rules are among the most stringent. In the case of the fish, they were recalled after the our department discovered residue from an antibiotic not approved for use in farm-raised fish.
In mid-August, we will be hosting representatives from our congressional delegation for an annual AgFirst conference. During this meeting we will discuss a variety of agricultural issues of concern to our state. Food safety will be one of the issues we will be talking about because it is also an issue of national importance.
Our Food and Drug Protection Division checks many food items each year, including ready-to-eat products, fresh fruits and vegetables and soft-serve ice cream in restaurants. While we do inspect ice cream dispensers, we do not conduct overall inspections of individual restaurants. That job falls to local health departments.
Food and Drug inspectors collect samples of products from retail stores and at processors and send them to our laboratory for testing. Among the things our staff looks for is the presence of E.coli, salmonella and other harmful microorganisms, pesticide residues, heavy metals, foreign materials and more. We hope the tests turn up nothing, but that isn’t always the case.
When we find evidence of these potentially harmful substances, we work with the company involved to determine where the product has been shipped and issue a recall.
From time to time, we will step up our inspection of certain food items if problems are reported in another part of the country, just to be sure we don’t have a similar problem here.
Following severe weather events, our inspectors will also canvass areas that experienced flooding or extended power outages to ensure food safety.
In addition, our Meat and Poultry Inspection Division works in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to inspect meat processing facilities in the state. A state or federal inspector has to be onsite whenever a processing plant is operating.
Situations like the fish recall again underscore the benefits of buying locally grown commodities.
North Carolina has a number of aquaculture farmers in the state producing tilapia, trout, catfish, hybrid striped bass, crawfish and more. In fact, we are the third largest producer of trout in the country.
This is the prime time of the season for North Carolina fruits and vegetables and I’d encourage you to look for local products wherever you shop.
Our Got to Be NC Agriculture campaign got a plug on national television recently when the “Early Show” on CBS broadcast from downtown Raleigh as part of its “Summer in the City” series. Weatherman Dave Price showed off a display of North Carolina commodities and even tasted some extra-fresh green peppers on air. Later in the broadcast, he drove off in the Big Cart, which the department is using to promote North Carolina products. I hope some of you saw this broadcast, and most importantly I hope the spot translates into increased sales for our farmers.
Remember, when you want the best, it’s “Got to Be NC Agriculture.”