Searing audit says Utah agriculture agency failed to follow up on hundreds of ‘critical’ food violations

Agency leadership has previously shown “unwillingness to ensure accountability,” according to report.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets at the state Capitol in 2014. State lawmakers on Tuesday received a scathing audit of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, which auditors said found had lax processes and poor record-keeping.

A scathing state audit of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food found that lax processes and poor record-keeping left the division vulnerable to “fraud, theft and other serious risks.”

The review, released to state lawmakers Tuesday, found the department had poor oversight of its own property and fleet and within its inspection programs, and it recommended officials implement new internal controls.

“There’s a lot of surprising findings in this audit,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said during a Tuesday afternoon hearing on the report. “Troubling.”

The audit comes on the heels of a separate negative audit of the department in November and another one from February that found the agency issued its cattle inspectors rifles they didn’t need and ATVs they didn’t use. The current review primarily focuses on the culture and practices at the department under the leadership of former commissioners LuAnn Adams, Kerry Gibson and Logan Wilde.

Commissioner Craig Buttars, who was appointed to the role late last year, thanked auditors for their work and agreed with their recommendations, noting in a letter that the department had already taken action “to strengthen oversight, tracking and accountability.”

Speaking to lawmakers, Buttars said the agency was “well aware” of many of the deficiencies highlighted in the report.

Here’s a look at what the audit found:

Lack of follow-up on ‘critical’ food violations

The audit recommends that the department improve oversight within its inspection programs, noting that most of those within the Regulatory Services division lack “sufficient written policies” for tracking and enforcing violations inspectors find.

The division’s Retail Food program, for example, did not follow up on at least 457 “critical violations” identified during routine inspections in 2020.

The most frequent violations are for inadequate hand washing facilities or signage and lack of employee food handler’s permits. Establishments can also be dinged for unclean or unsanitized food services or for evidence of vermin.

Data suggests enforcement of these violations wasn’t slim solely in 2020. For the last five years, there have been more routine inspections finding violations than there have been follow-up inspections, auditors note — indicating little effort to ensure all the problems inspectors have identified are resolved.

The audit reports that inspectors called out an uncleaned food preparation machine in four consecutive reviews over the course of two years. But there was no documented follow-up scheduled to ensure the issue was resolved.

An “effective regulatory program” would return to establishments when these types of problems are found and document their resolution to ensure compliance, the audit notes.

“Allowing establishments to continue operating without resolving the violation can put the public at risk of foodborne illnesses,” the auditors state. “We found relatively few reported health complaints attributed to retail food establishments, which gives some assurance that health guidelines are at least being minimally followed. That said, some foodborne illnesses never get reported.”

Auditors said their primary concern was with the division’s follow-up and “precision” of enforcement.

The auditors suggest that the Retail Food program should ensure follow up on any violations within 10 days, track these cases to their resolution and establish written policies for ensuring violations are addressed. The department should also create meaningful performance measures to indicate how effective programs are at preventing and correcting violations, they said.

In a written response to the audit, UDAF said it agreed generally with the findings and recommendations and said that “significant gaps in policies and procedures” were identified as a result of the audit and would be addressed.

But the department also pushed back on some of the findings, noting that while there are no policies and procedures specific to the Retail Food program, officials have relied on those from the Manufactured Food Regulatory Program Standards program, which has similar focuses. The department also pushed back on claims that it was not following up on critical violations, noting that some of these were done informally and were not properly documented.

Poor oversight

The audit also took aim at the agriculture agency’s past leadership for failing to set up safeguards against fraud and theft.

For instance, the agency has an “unusually weak asset control system” and hasn’t been keeping track of some of its property — including trailers and weight calibration equipment worth up to $40,000.

Auditors also noted that the agency hasn’t requested an internal audit for more than five years and faulted managers for an “unwillingness to ensure accountability,” a mindset that the rest of the workforce might have absorbed.

“[T]his relaxed attitude toward management oversight sets an improper tone for the organization,” the report states.

The agency doesn’t have its own internal audit office — which is likely contributing to this problem — and has previously relied on the Utah Department of Natural Resources for these reviews, according to the audit. But these investigations were not in-depth enough for a department of UDAF’s size and complexity, auditors found.

In addition, the review found UDAF has “failed to fully comply” with its federal funding requirements and has improperly charged personnel time to these grants, among other missteps.

Furthermore, the agency has done a poor job of gathering data on its fee collections, which means the process for setting UDAF fees “lacks transparency and accountability,” according to auditors. As a result, fee revenues for multiple UDAF programs are “consistently” insufficient to pay for expenses, according to the audit.

In a response to these findings, UDAF leadership generally agreed with the audit’s concerns about sloppy record-keeping and lack of transparency but said that turnover in the agency’s upper ranks have “presented challenges in creating a consistent culture.”

UDAF indicated it would improve its training on federal grant guidelines and do a better job of documenting how this money is spent.

The agency recently finished an inventory of all of its assets worth more than $5,000 and will require its divisions to track this property going forward, according to UDAF’s response. It also plans to hire an internal auditor.

State car mismanagement

UDAF has also failed to monitor use of the state vehicles in its fleet — which in one case meant that the animal industry section wrongly reimbursed an employee for more than $7,400 for mileage that didn’t qualify.

In that case, the employee submitted nine different reimbursement requests for trips taken in a state vehicle, even though UDAF workers are only recouped when they use their personal cars.

“This would be similar to an employee using a state purchasing card to buy a computer, and then submitting the receipt to be personally reimbursed for the expense,” the audit states. “This egregious example demonstrates that the division lacks sufficient controls when reimbursing employees for in-state travel.”

And that’s not the only problem related to the fleet, which costs UDAF nearly $1 million a year, according to the review. Because of mismanagement, some employees are designated state vehicles that they don’t need, while other agency workers are taking business trips in their personal cars.

In fact, 63 agency cars, or 43% of the fleet, were unused for more than half the time during the nine-week period analyzed by auditors.

The report recommended that UDAF use GPS tracking software to keep track of how long state vehicles are parked in lots, whether employees are speeding and where they’re going. They also advised the agency to shift to using a motor pool so employees can share cars rather than assigning vehicles to individual workers.

UDAF concurred with the audit findings and required the employee mentioned in the report to return the roughly $7,400 in improper mileage reimbursements.

However, in response to concerns that state cars are sitting around, the agency noted that the audit review took place during the early months of 2020 — when vehicle use was likely down because of COVID-19 restrictions and the time of year.

The department is tasking one employee with coordinating the agency fleet and gathering information about how vehicles are being used. It is also conducting an “in-depth internal review” of car usage and will create a motor pool.