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Ag department's trips to Spain scrutinized

At least four times a year, Florida food inspectors fly more than 8,000 miles round-trip to make sure a dairy north of Madrid, Spain, is producing yogurts and desserts safe for Florida consumers.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services started inspecting Pascual Dairy three years ago, buoyed by the promise that the company, part of one of the largest food conglomerates in Spain, would soon open a factory in Florida.

While that factory has yet to materialize, department officials continue to make the trips, saying the company reimburses them for the added expenses.

But state reviewers criticize the practice, saying it's a poor use of state staff.

"We believe that it is highly inappropriate for the department to conduct these inspections," said the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability in a report released last week that largely praised the state's food safety program. "Regulation of products imported into the United States is a federal, not a state, responsibility."

Officials with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that while their agency inspects fruit, vegetables, medical equipment and other food or drugs coming into the country or passing from state to state, they don't directly deal with milk and other dairy products. Instead, they allow the states to regulate the industry themselves, although the government does periodic checkups and gives advice. There's a similar agreement regarding shellfish.

Pascual, part of the larger Grupo Leche Pascual, had been selling its products in the state for a couple years before a competitor alerted the FDA that no one was making sure that the company was following U.S. standards. The FDA told the state to either certify the dairy itself or prohibit the company from doing business in Florida.

Fearing a lawsuit, state officials chose the former. They also understood that the company was looking to establish a market for its products in Florida, its first step to building a plant. The dairy specializes in products pasteurized at very high temperatures and packaged so they don't require refrigeration.

The department began sending someone about quarterly to Aranda de Duero, about an hour north of the Spanish capital, adding other technicians every two years. The division's director and an interpreter also have visited the dairy. The average trip takes 10 days, reviewers said.

Division director Hines Boyd was out of town last week, and department spokesman Terry McElroy said he didn't have records on how much it costs to send the employees to Spain. But he said officials send the company a bill for the flight, hotel and rental car expenses, so it ends up costing the state nothing except for salary. The OPPAGA report calculated that cost at $27,587 over the last three years.

Discussions on the Florida plant still are ongoing. McElroy said Gov. Jeb Bush and Enterprise Florida have been working with Pascual on the plant, which he estimated at being worth $20-million.

"We believe this relationship is going to have a tremendous investment in Florida," McElroy said.

Officials with the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development referred questions to Enterprise Florida, which declined to discuss the matter. Gabriel Pascual, who oversees the company's business in Florida and South America, didn't return phone calls late last week.

Bush was scheduled to meet with Grupo Pascual president Tomas Pascual last week during a trip to Spain. Bush canceled the trip because of concerns over Hurricane Michelle and the state budget.

Still, the OPPAGA reviewers said the relationship sets a bad precedent. They said an Argentina dairy has begun asking state officials about a similar agreement to import milk.

McElroy said he didn't have information about the Argentina company.

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