Saturday, April 29, 2017

Alaska Ag......About that FSMA thing

Today, another guest post. This one describes in some detail, the DofAg's attempt to subvert statutory authority over food safety.  Once again, this is unedited.


I’d like the opportunity to share some information about the issues brought up in the previous blog (Earth Day), because there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the truth is. I’ll address some specific things in the blog that I know about and can clarify. If readers want more information, they can find it here. If they don’t, they can quit reading I guess. The following is factual info that might be helpful to folks who are not familiar w/ Division of Ag programs and want to know more.

I worked as an inspector at AG for 7 yrs. I did commodity (fruit & veg) inspections, organic assistance, COOL audits, voluntary GAP food safety audits, and outreach. I developed and presented food safety workshops also, and did 15 workshops around the state from 2012 to 2014. About 6 years ago I got involved voluntarily in getting the state ready for FDA’s FSMA Produce Safety Rule because it would be implemented in the state whether growers were ready or not. At the time, we knew it was going to be a small program because most farms would be exempt in Alaska. And since DEC has statutory authority for ALL food safety in the state (and still does, see Attachment #1) the plan was to do an MOU and have me do the FSMA work out of the AG office, since I was the only one in the state who was familiar with it and qualified. It is true, by the way, that FSMA is a regulatory program – it really is not about farming. Saying it should be housed at AG because it involves farms is like saying the DEC Drinking Water regulatory program belongs housed in the local water and wastewater utility because it’s about water. It doesn’t work like that.

I moved to the DEC Office of the State Vet a year and a half ago. Because I had been the only person in the state working on FSMA (and because they had authority for it) I offered to voluntarily take the program with me to DEC and do that work too, along with my other new job duties. No extra pay, no more power, I just wanted to ensure a smooth transition for the program and the growers that I care about, and try to save some money for the state.

When I left the Division of Ag I told management, and also later told the new Director, Arthur Keyes, that I was planning to do FSMA from DEC when I left, as I was already trained and certified, and was the only person in the state who knew anything about the program. I also advised them not to rehire my inspector position, as it wasn’t necessary. I told the Division of Ag that pretty much all the other programs I had been assigned to as an inspector there (including the GAP food safety audits) were wasting huge amounts of state money for little to no return, or could be reconfigured and the position eliminated. I thought that in a budget crisis, it would make sense to let the management know this and do what I could do to try and reduce some costs. The former manager and former Div of Ag Director agreed, and they had planned to shelve those programs and not rehire the inspector position after I left. The primary inspections that I had hired on for (routine commodity inspections) are no longer being done, and maintaining the program and certification for two staff was costly. And the voluntary GAP food safety audit program alone was costing the state over $40,000 per year, and recouping about $250 a year to cover those costs.  It benefitted exactly two growers on an occasional basis. These audits can instead be provided by a third-party firm. All this information was later passed on to the current Director of Ag and his managers also. (see Attachments #2 and #3 to verify this). 

At DEC, it was estimated that the entire FSMA PSR program could be run with 1½ full time employees, and with the microbiology/food safety staff at DEC picking up some of the program duties, no additional full time staff would need to be hired to run the program.

A few months later, Fed-state grants became available for the FSMA Produce Safety Rule from the FDA. During the application period, FDA clearly stated that only state agencies with food safety authority could apply for the grants. Division of Ag knew DEC was applying and planned to keep the program in-house, but they filed an intent to apply for this FDA grant in spite of the fact that they did not have food safety authority. They also had absolutely no personnel on staff with any food safety experience at that time, but that didn’t matter to them. They insisted on applying for the FSMA grant, and forced FDA to warn that dual applications from any state would result in both applications being thrown out (Section III Eligible Applicants, PAR-16-137).  This jeopardized both agencies’ grant funding. DEC applied and received funding for the FSMA PSR grant, and the grant and the program are both under DEC’s jurisdiction now, which can be verified here:

The Division of Ag managers and Director were furious that they were not given the program. Arthur Keyes even slandered me to my boss and several commissioners and state officials on a conference call when he thought I wasn’t listening, in an attempt to discredit me and claim that the program should be at the Div of Ag. This was only a few weeks after he had his manager call me and beg me to return to my old job at Div of Ag, so clearly his slanderous statements about me didn’t hold much water. THIS kind of treatment is why people at Ag are “disgruntled”. When they weren’t allowed to apply for the grant, Div of Ag quickly hired two new staff and lobbied the governor for a takeover of the program.  DEC was told to give them some program work and a cut of the grant money. We then did not have enough money remaining to pay for the on-staff PhD microbiologist who was to be the (half time) Program Coordinator. The two people who were hired by Div of Ag under their newly-named “Marketing and Food Safety Program” were both unfamiliar w/ FSMA and uncertified to conduct any activities for it. One of the new Ag employees was given the title of “Program Coordinator” even though the program was actually at DEC. None of the job duties that were listed in the job announcement could actually be done by a person at the Division of Ag, because they were not in charge of the program. In spite of that, someone accepted the job and moved his young family to Alaska for it, under the impression that everything was on the up and up. One can only imagine how he will feel when he figures all this out. The job announcement is here:

Because there was a hiring freeze in effect when this “Program Coordinator” was recruited, the Division of Ag had to justify this hire. They claimed that there was a plan in place to move the FSMA program and grant to the Div of Ag next year, though that is untrue. There was not at that time, and still is not any plan for moving the program. The hiring justification also falsely stated that if Division of Ag was not given approval to hire this position, there would be no one in the state who would be able to provide growers with FSMA food safety information. Of course, this is also not true, because the only current FSMA produce safety specialist (me) is at DEC, and along with the other staff who are food safety specialists, we will be conducting the training, Outreach and information to growers under without any assistance needed from AG. The "FSMA program coordinator" position hired by division of agriculture will not be working under the FSMA program at all, unless DEC chooses to subcontract some of the work to them.

The second person Div of Ag hired was an Inspector to replace my old position, even though all the program work has either dried up or was recommended to be done away with by the former management, as a cost-savings measure for the state.

As far as activities reported by Director to the legislature for 2016, the blog is correct. There were NO food safety staff at Div Ag, and there had been NO GAP audits done since way before I left in 2015. Only two commodity inspections have been done, both of them over 6 months ago. NO food safety workshops have been done since I stopped doing them in 2014. The Div Ag manager has apparently said she is planning to start doing them again, and is training one of the new staff to do them. However, I think this is completely unnecessary and would waste more state money, as I’ll be required under FSMA to do these workshops through DEC, and any grower can attend one there. As far as FSMA work, Div of Ag hasn’t been doing any, and certainly none in 2016, though it is mentioned in the legislative testimony too.

What IS clear is that now Rep Tarr has proposed House Bill 218, attempting to reassign the duties of the Office of the State Vet (where the FSMA program also resides) to Div of Ag. It looks like Div of Ag management has been working with folks in Juneau to enact this takeover of duties for many months now. None of us at OSV were asked for our input, and no, we were not invited to talk about it during testimony. The HB 217 Raw Milk Bill was put forth without anyone even calling me to let me know or ask questions too, and I am the only Dairy Regulator in the whole state. If a legislator had been REALLY interested in creating a bill that was sensible, do-able, and took into consideration all the things that you’d need to know about dairy regulation, she would have at least called and inquired about specifics, I’d think. Crafting a new bill without any input from the affected agency does not seem to be the most thoughtful or effective way to create new legislation.

As far as the AG Director misinforming farmers about FSMA: Arthur Keyes attended my food safety workshop twice before he was Director of Ag. He also came to a presentation that I gave to the Board of Ag and Conservation. Both those included FSMA info. I met with him one-on-one on TWO occasions to explain in detail how FSMA worked and how it would affect Alaska (very few, if ANY farms will be affected here, more info on that is here):  In spite of all that information, he still submitted a long editorial to the A.D.N. stating that it would put farms out of business and was bad for Alaska, and he continues to oppose it publicly, although FSMA requirements are actually much less onerous than the GAP audit that he is familiar with.

 The legislative audit report speaks for itself. The takeover of the DEC’s Office of the State Vet would require a Statute change, which is always years in the making, and would cost the state another huge amount of money, so probably won’t happen. It’s not the State Vet’s Office that’s not working correctly here, and it is absolutely true that there is nothing in the State Vet’s duties that would allow for promotion of Agriculture. That office is about disease prevention and public health protection, it needs the support of the Environmental Health Lab where it’s housed, and it’s in a whole different realm than the Division of Ag inhabits.

It’s unfortunate, but as always seems to happen, the actions of a few people can cast a shadow on all the other honest, hardworking state employees that I have worked with for many years. My boss works his tail off, more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, all the time. I worked a 15-hour day Monday, like I do every time I travel for work, in order to save the state some travel money. I brought up concerns that I have with the Division of Ag privately in letters to state administration because I wanted them to have the opportunity to do the right thing. When it became obvious that nothing was going to be done by anybody, I talked about it with anybody who would listen. I guess if producers or others want things to change, they’ll have to make calls themselves and raise their voices. Nobody’s looking for a medal, but it would be nice to not be slandered and dragged through the mud for trying to do the right thing.

Edited: Attempting to add the attachments, which are not hosted on a website.


Anonymous said...

I personally would like to hear Arthur Keys version on this blog? If he is a big enough man to do so?

Anonymous said...

Wait, did I just read that right?

DEC was forced to cut a (person with a Phd, for crying out loud!) position, because the Div. of Ag was ordered to be given money from DEC? Ordered by the Governor, I presume? And this, to give the two new hires something to manage?

What am I missing here?

Oh, just the usual...fiscal responsibility, transparency, efficiency, common sense.....

Anonymous said...

Would love to see Arthur Keys version of events published. What corruption this is despicable and shameful do people not care about the truth anymore, Arthur Keys obviously is unqualified. The whole agriculture community should be ashamed of having Arthur Keys as Director.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is -if this is the "less serious" stuff, WTH is the other "that's Illegal" stuff that the gov's office has been sitting on for 1.5 years that is mentioned in the last comments

Anonymous said...

aaaaand....that's a mic drop.