Hennepin County Medical Center - Local 977

Keeping Dairy Supplies Safe

Inspectors like Local 2980’s Patrick Hansen routinely look at the health of cows and the general conditions on dairy barns.

On this crisp fall day, Patrick Hansen figures he’s got the best job in the state.

Hansen, a member of Local 2980, is a dairy inspector in the Department of Agriculture. This morning, he’s driving his state van along rural roads near Faribault. Corn nudges the ditches, waiting for the harvest.

“It’s just not in my blood, sitting behind a desk, especially when the weather’s nice,” he says. “It just doesn’t compute.”

Hansen grew up in country like this. He worked his family’s dairy farm in Stearns County until he was 40. After a rift with his father, however, he left. He took a job in Missouri, learning the ropes as an inspector for Hoard’s Dairyman. He moved back to Minnesota in 1988 when a state inspector job opened up.

“When I quit the farm, that was not an easy choice to make,” he says.” I loved the farm. Still love it.”

As a dairy inspector, Hansen has three main areas of responsibility:

  • Dairy farms, which he inspects at least once a year. (Every August, Hansen also must give his stamp of approval to the dairy barn at the Minnesota State Fair.)
  • Grade A plants, which process fresh products such as milk, cottage cheese, yogurt and sour cream. These inspections take priority. He must inspect each plant every 90 days, and gather product sam¬ples every month.
  • Other plants, which produce cheese or dried dairy products (think of the powdered cheese that coats Cheetos). He inspects these plants twice a year. With cheese, he notes, “if it’s aged over 60 days, there isn’t much of a problem. The aging process will kill the bacteria.”

Top to bottom

To do his job, Hansen inspects what he sees and what’s in the records. He inspects barns and milk houses on farms, tankers that deliver milk, and refrigerated silos where bottlers can store raw milk for up to 72 hours. The insides of tankers, for example, must be washed every day. Refrigerated silos must be cleaned every time they’re emptied.

He inspects how plants pasteurize, bottle or process milk into other products. During a plant inspection, Hansen first checks for general cleanli¬ness and potential hazards such as peeling paint. He looks for cracks in the walls or floor, which can invite bacteria, insect and rodent problems.

He checks the pasteurizer, making sure the milk is heated to at least 161 degrees for at least 15 seconds, and that pressure differentials prevent backflow. He checks that there are proper vents to prevent water and other contaminants from splashing into milk or cheese vats. He checks packaging, to make sure the bottling line is properly shielded. Jugs, lids and every other item that touches milk must come from a source certified for use with dairy products.

The samples Hansen takes – milk, cream and every pasteurized or cultured product the plant makes – are sent to the state laboratory in St. Paul. For consumers’ safety, the lab tests for bacteria, antibiotics and to verify that pasteurized products indeed have been pasteurized. To prevent consumers from getting ripped off, the lab verifies that milk contains the advertised level of fat.

Farmers can improve -- or else

On a farm, Hansen runs through a checklist to make sure equipment, supplies and conditions meet standards. He evaluates the overall health of the cows. He inspects the plumbing, the barn, the milk house or milking parlor. He makes sure antibiotics are stored and labeled properly.

He leaves a written report, giving farmers a chance to correct their deficiencies, either on their own or by working with Department of Agriculture field reps.

If necessary, Hansen can pull farms off Grade A status or pull them off the market all together. He still shakes his head in disbelief at some of the things he’s seen. “Those situations, they usually hang themselves,” he says. “They shouldn’t be in business in the first place. Or they’re just plain lazy.”

As the number of dairy farms decreases, Hansen’s territory increases. He used to be responsible for just Rice and Dakota Counties. Now he covers those two counties, plus all of Washington County, plus parts of Chisago, Steele and Goodhue Counties. His territory runs from Forest Lake to Taylors Falls, down through the east metro to Red Wing, then across to Owatonna and New Prague.

Practicing diplomacy every day

All 16 of the state’s current inspectors either grew up on a dairy farm or worked in the industry first, he says. So they know the lifestyle firsthand. Farmers are always asking inspectors what they know about new products and new techniques. Hansen doesn’t hesitate to share what’s working on other farms – and what isn’t.

Recognizing the pressures that farmers deal with isn’t necessarily part of the job description, but it is part of the job. The financial stress (see related story on this page) and the pressure to cut corners doesn’t make the job any easier, Hansen says. Family farms – those with the smallest herds – generally are hurting the most.
“You’ve got to watch what you say and how you say it,” he says. “Pick your battles.”

It’s all part of dealing with the idiosyncrasies of individual farmers, he says. “When I first started, this guy just came unglued. He came in, ranted and raved about 10 minutes straight.

“After he got it off his chest – the nicest guy you want to meet. But the first 10 minutes, you better be prepared. He was going to unload on the government – and I was the government. “What you learn is, don’t take it personally.” 

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Adapted from an article that originally ran in the January/February 2010 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up.

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