By Joe Beck -- firstname.lastname@example.org
A spokeswoman for the state agency that inspects retail food offerings defended its inspectors Friday against a Front Royal businessman's accusations that they aren't knowledgeable enough to justify action taken against him.
Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection, refused to comment on the details of Rodney Sparks' case in which he is charged with 10 counts of offering adulterated and misbranded meat for sale. He was selling the meat at his store at 654 W. 11th St. from Aug. 19, 2011 to Jan. 29, according to court documents.
The charges are the product of an investigation conducted by inspectors with the Office of Meat and Poultry Services in Harrisonburg, a division within Lidholm's agency.
Sparks has denounced the inspectors as lacking an understanding of meat and how to judge its fitness for human consumption. He has insisted that he knows of no one who ever fell ill as a result of meat sold from his store, and inspectors were wrong to deem it unfit for human consumption.
"First of all, I would say all of our inspectors are highly trained," Lidholm said. "They do this every day, and many of them have worked many years for us."
The state uses the same standards as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lidholm said, meaning that food inspections in Virginia follow the same benchmarks as those throughout the nation.
The federal government also reviews the state's inspection program every year, she said.
"There's a lot of checks and balances in our program," Lidholm said. "It is a very successful program with one purpose in mind: to protect the public's health and safety."
Inspectors like those who filed a criminal complaint against Sparks inspect all retail outlets that sell food. The list includes grocery stores, big box retailers, convenience stores and warehouses, Lidholm said.
Each retailer can expect a visit from an inspector at least once a year, she said, but no advance notice is given.
"They're always a surprise to the store," Lidholm said, adding, "we also do complaint-based inspections."
She said the complaint-based inspections are especially important deterrents because a store owner cannot assume that passing a routine inspection means there will be no more for another year.
"We can go into a grocery store and inspect one day," Lidholm said. "If a week later we got a complaint on that store, we would be right back in there. Routine inspections provide a level playing field, but complaint-based inspections do even more."
The inspectors who visit grocery stores check the quality of all food products on sale, not just meat and poultry, she said.
She said the agency fielded 800 complaints about grocery stores last year, many of them having nothing to do with meat.
"It could be someone calling to say they found a bag of rice with a rock in it," she said.