Few realize it, but a team at the South Carolina Department of Agriculture protects consumers in the state each and every day.
They verify the octane levels of gasoline at fuel stations and inspect the accuracy of food checkout scales at grocery stores. They ensure that the 90/10 ground beef that consumers buy at a premium does, in fact, contain just 10 percent fat. They even test the germination of grass seed for your lawn.
“If law enforcement officers were not there monitoring the speed that we go on the highway, people might be more reckless,” says Phil Trefsgar, laboratory director for the Consumer Protection Division of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture. “We basically do the same thing with the industries that we regulate. Our being here helps hold their feet to the fire to let our consumers know they that are receiving quality products.”
The Consumer Protection Division represents the regulatory branch of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, says Derek Underwood, assistant commissioner for consumer protection. The division includes four departments that ensure consumers receive the food, feed and fuel they pay for: Laboratory Services Department, Consumer Services Department, Metrology Services Department, and Food Safety & Compliance Department.
The Consumer Protection Division earns little attention, since it works behind the scenes, says Angie Culler-Matthews, manager of the Food Safety & Compliance Department. Her group inspects food and feed manufacturers for safe and sanitary conditions. The team reviews food labels to ensure compliance with fair packaging and allergen laws, and regulates commercial animal feeds to ensure safety and guaranteed analysis.
“Whenever I see a product that we regulate and is manufactured in our state, I know the rigors it has gone through and the work that has gone into the labels to make sure they are in compliance,” Culler-Matthews says. “If a product is registered and has met our requirements, then I’m confident in feeding it to my family or animals.”
Likewise, Trefsgar expresses great confidence in the laboratory services of the Consumer Protection Division.
Five different laboratories test food products, feed, seed and petroleum products for compliance, including testing fresh produce for pesticide residue, all from samples collected by the division’s Consumer Services Department. The labs use various methods and procedures to assure that products meet acceptable standards of quality and identity.
Technicians test fuels for water and sediment. They examine feed against label guarantees. The department registers antifreeze and pet treats, and even issues licenses for frozen desserts.
“Everything that you do, from the groceries that you buy to the fuel you put into your car and fuel you use to heat your home, the agriculture department touches all of that,” Underwood says.
Small But Mighty
The Consumer Protection Division reorganized in mid-2013 with a leaner, more efficient staff, Underwood says.
“We’re continuing to look at the structure of the division. We’re never idle,” he says. “We’re looking for ways to improve, streamline and be more efficient.”
Underwood expresses gratitude to the South Carolina General Assembly, which allocated funds to update equipment that will improve test results and turnaround times. In fact, a new $2.8 million metrology lab should open in 2016. The precision of such a laboratory proves intense, with requirements for special flooring in some areas to account for the earth’s rotation.
This lab calibrates the division’s measuring tools, to make sure a gallon is a gallon and a gram measures a gram by universal standards. Even major manufacturers like Kraft, Boeing and Bridgestone pay to use these state services. Underwood predicts demand for those services will grow with the new laboratory and its expanded certifications.