By Kevin Besey, Director, Food and Dairy Division, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) is at a point where it can no longer meet the demand for compliance assistance for new and growing food businesses and also evaluate food establishments often enough to assure the public’s food safety.
MDARD has been meeting with food industry associations to discuss new ways of doing business to meet the needs of our growing industry and maintain a sound, effective food safety program in Michigan. MDARD’s proposed fee increases have been a starting point for these discussions. Industry meetings, which began in the summer of 2014, will resume this year, starting in March 2015.
Over the past year, I have outlined MDARD’s commitment to partnering with food businesses to meet state and federal food laws to keep their businesses viable and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. I’ve presented MDARD’s three-year plan to improve its ability to better assure Michigan’s food and dairy safety while assisting our growing food and agriculture sector with the compliance assistance they need when starting or expanding their food or dairy business. A crucial part of the plan includes an adjustment of food license fees to help fill a structural deficit in program operations, and support additional technology needs and staff to meet the needs of our growing industry.
With the food and agriculture sector listed as one of Michigan’s big three industries, food safety is critical to the state’s economic health. People buy Michigan food, in part, because they trust our food supply is safe. Michigan has long been considered a national leader in food safety. This is the result of the dedication and continuous improvement from all of you with food operations in Michigan; the agriculture, environmental health and food science resources at Michigan universities; our 45 local health departments; the Global Food Protection Institute in Battle Creek; and the staff at MDARD. Michigan is a large and diverse agricultural state providing food and dairy products for Michiganders and is a significant exporter to other states and countries.
Reducing risk to business success is a vital consideration whether on the farm, at the value-added processor, in a restaurant, or in the retail market. Being proactive in our consideration of food safety risks is far superior to a reactive regulatory approach. These growing demands have put additional stress on MDARD staff as they strive to deliver requested assistance to businesses that drive the food and agriculture sector. We are falling short of our collective goal to provide the consultative services, risk reduction, and level industry playing field that the industry deserves.
Michigan assures food safety through its licensing process. Each license issued serves as the state’s assurance that a specific food business meets minimum food safety standards, and these standards are verified through regular evaluations. This allows everyone to buy groceries and dine out without worrying if they’ll become ill. It also provides other businesses, states and countries the assurance that it’s safe to let Michigan food products cross their borders.
The state legislature will soon be discussing industry fees for the first time in 15 years. The proposed fee increase would collectively raise $2.5 million over the next three years, based on industry suggestions from our 2014 meetings. Specifically, this would mean an increase for small food facilities from $67 to $183;. for large food facilities, the increase would be from $167 to $468 over three years. These proposed fees are below the average of other states and well below Michigan local health departments.
Even with these increases, the industry will move from paying 26 percent of the cost of MDARD’s regulatory programs to paying just 37 percent. The majority of the cost would still be covered by other program funding sources (General Fund and federal grants).
Fee increases are crucial for MDARD to continue to meet the needs of the industry and enforce state and federal food safety regulations. Since 2000, the number of food licenses issued has increased by 15 percent (50 percent for food processors) and the number of MDARD inspectors has decreased by 8 percent. During this same period, evaluations have also gotten more complex, as businesses have grown and diversified to meet changing consumer demands for a wider variety of food products, and food safety regulations have changed in response to new scientific data and an increased ability to pinpoint specific risks and causes of foodborne illness.
Increased funding for MDARD programs will mean an increase in the value of the services our staff is able to offer your business, including increased inspections and compliance reviews. Our inspectors will be able to work with you to find and eliminate small problems before they grow. This will translate into fewer foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls, which in turn will lead to lower business operating costs and reduced liability for our food industry customers. The fee increases will also support enhanced customer service for new and expanding food businesses, including an expedited process for plan reviews, product label reviews, sampling and testing and other business growth consultative services. And, finally, we will be able to support an effective 24/7, 365 days a year, emergency response system when food emergencies occur, to assist you in responding to customer illnesses, disasters, food recalls, and contamination incidents.
As we move to strengthen our regulatory and business development support programs for licensed food businesses in our state, I hope you see the value of these programs to your business and can support the proposed fee increases. If you have questions, please contact your food inspector or MDARD at 800-292-3939.