Considering all the inspections, monitoring and lab certifications handled by the Food Safety division of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, one might think it is a rather complex organization.
And while there are nearly 200 food safety employees statewide and a lengthy list of responsibilities, the division takes a very succinct approach to its purpose.
“We have a very simple mission statement,” says Steve Ingham, the division’s administrator. “We’re about safe food honestly sold. Safety is our No. 1 priority, but we also care a lot about honest representation of products we oversee. That actually blends in with safety. We’re really all about businesses succeeding in a safe manner.”
At its core, the division enforces food safety laws and regulations, particularly those of the USDA for meat and poultry and the FDA for all other foods. Food Safety licenses and inspects more than 6,000 food establishments and more than 10,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin, and supervises local government inspection of nearly 7,000 other food businesses.
It regulates Wisconsin’s $43.4 billion dairy industry, one of the state’s most recognizable industries, through inspections, product testing and grading to ensure safety. On a daily inspection schedule, it enforces the state’s meat and poultry inspection laws and regulations to ensure that meat is a safe and wholesome product.
A Win-Win Scenario
Most of Food Safety’s employees work in the field, organized by counties or townships where possible.
“We’re out there working with food processors all the time and our staff know the communities where processors operate,” Ingham says. “The main goal of staff is to educate before they regulate and regulate before they enforce compliance. We always try to use the gentlest tool available first.”
That tool typically produces a win-win situation. Not only are consumers assured of having safe food to eat and drink, but producers and businesses can also benefit from the division’s equipment reviews or input from its inspectors.
Ingham, for instance, describes a case where a dairy plant was considering purchasing a new piece of equipment that was located in Scandinavia. A Food Safety reviewer was able to use Skype to inspect the equipment, thus saving the plant having to travel for an in-person review.
“We’ll go to great lengths to make sure people get equipment that passes requirements for sanitary design,” Ingham says.
Cooperation Is Welcome
The division is also known for its flexibility and open-mindedness, according to the owner of one of the state’s many wineries. Food Safety has jurisdiction over Wisconsin’s breweries and wineries.
“They are the authority, and it is only through their understanding and their willingness to learn and understand, and to keep an open mind, that we can progress,” says Philippe Coquard, president and winemaker for Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac and Cedar Creek Winery in Cedarburg.
He points to the relatively recent use of ozone by state wineries for sterilizing equipment. Wineries on the West Coast have been using ozone for about 20 years, but its use in Wisconsin started around eight years ago.
“It was a learning experience for us and (Food Safety) on how ozone can be extremely useful at a winery,” Coquard says. “It’s safe, cheap and extremely effective on bacteria, yeast, fungus and so on. It was a very cooperative way working with them in sharing and explaining that knowledge. We welcome working with them and cooperating with them.”