The Division of Regulatory Services: Protecting and Serving the Commonwealth
By Randy Weckman
If you’re buying pet food for Fido, fertilizer for your lawn, or seeds for your garden, then your purchases are protected by the Division of Regulatory Services. You can sleep better at night knowing that regulatory inspectors and chemists are doing their job to keep the citizens of the commonwealth healthy.
Secluded—almost sequestered—on the extreme south side of the University of Kentucky campus, a small, squarish building houses one of the most important services for the well-being of Kentuckians. The College of Agriculture’s Division of Regulatory Services assures the citizens of the commonwealth that many of the agricultural and consumer products they buy are as they are represented on the label.
In fact, regulatory functions that began more than a century ago were the primary reason for the College’s rise to prominence. They also provided most of its financial resources in those early years.
It was in the early days of the Progressive Era (Grover Cleveland was president) that the unit started with only one man—called the agricultural chemist—performing the important job of analyzing fertilizers to make sure that they contained what their labels purported.
The state legislature in 1886 had passed the “fertilizer law,” as it was commonly called then and as it is today. Its real name perhaps provides both the goal and substance of the bill: “An Act to regulate the sale of fertilizers in this Commonwealth, and to protect the agriculturist in the purchase and use of the same.” In that act, the director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, established a year earlier at University of Kentucky, would handle the chores of analyzing fertilizer samples and enforcing the law pertaining to their labeling.
You see, the 1880s were rife with fraud in a great many things. Milk routinely was adulterated with embalming fluid to keep it from souring so quickly; animal feeds contained sawdust to increase their weight, and bags of seed were “stove piped” to increase profits for the sellers (this involved putting a stove pipe in the middle of the sack, filling the stove pipe with chaff, with seed only around the stove pipe prior to the pipe being pulled out). Fertilizers sometimes contained mostly inert ingredients.
Today, the division’s 62 employees not only monitor fertilizers sold in Kentucky, they also check animal feeds (for both livestock and pets) for accurate labeling, test seeds sold in the commonwealth for germination quality, analyze soils for farmers to help them know how much and what types of fertilizers would increase yields, and test raw farm milk to make sure that it is marketed accurately. It is because of the division’s work that consumers are so well protected today.
Eli Miller, former director of Regulatory Services, said about the division’s work: “We don’t find too many bad actors these days. Perhaps our continuous monitoring for fraud dissuades potential bad actors from trying to hoodwink the public. Today, violations occur usually because vendors didn’t understand the laws pertaining to their commodity. The vast majority of businesses that we regulate are extremely ethical and try to sell quality products. To help them, we do a great deal of vendor education.”
Monitoring Fertilizer Content: Now, more than a century after the first Kentucky fertilizer act, chemists in the Division of Regulatory Services annually analyze nearly 3,500 samples of fertilizer submitted from some 950,000 tons of fertilizer sold in Kentucky. These samples are analyzed to ensure the fertilizer contains what the vendor guarantees on the label, usually in terms of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sometimes chloride levels, and less frequently, secondary and micro-nutrient composition.
Today’s fertilizer analyses are far more comprehensive, accurate, and speedy than those in the early days. In the 1880s, the agricultural chemist generally analyzed samples sent to Lexington by farmers in the state. Each analysis in those early times took several days to complete. Now, samples are collected by 10 inspectors throughout Kentucky—usually from manufacturers or mixers of fertilizers—and are analyzed by sophisticated laboratory equipment in a matter of minutes. And now, fertilizer can be checked for more than the big three (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash); certain samples are monitored for their guarantee of secondary and micro-nutrients and 10 elements.
The division also inspects specialty (non-farm) fertilizers—those manufactured for home lawns, gardens, and golf courses, among others—for proper labeling and guaranteed nutrients. Samples are analyzed to help assure that consumers get what they pay for.
“ Only about 12 percent of the samples we analyze are found
to be less than their guaranteed analysis. In those cases, we issue
a ‘stop sale’ order, which means that the fertilizer cannot
be sold in Kentucky until it is re-labeled to reflect its true composition,” said
David Terry, coordinator of the fertilizer regulatory program.
The division may impose penalties on manufacturers of mislabeled fertilizer. The penalties are paid to its purchasers, if they are known. Otherwise, the money is used by the division to maintain its operation, Terry said.
“ Generally, the seller isn’t trying to defraud anyone. Simply, they made a mistake, and they can fix that by re-labeling their product to reflect the accurate analysis,” Terry said.
He noted that to help fertilizer mixers and manufacturers avoid problems, the fertilizer group in the division holds periodic educational meetings about how to blend quality fertilizers and remain in compliance with Kentucky’s laws.
Livestock and Pet Feeds: Because of the early and
profound successes of the fertilizer law, in 1906 the Kentucky legislature
added the protection of the state’s livestock and poultry producers
to the mission of the Agricultural Experiment Station.
The Kentucky Commercial Feed Law regulates materials offered for sale as feed or mixing in feed, with exemptions for unprocessed grain, hay, and silage. In reality, any commercial animal feed offered for sale in Kentucky must be inspected. Inspection today covers much more than analysis for the standard nutrients. It includes checking for antibiotics, ensuring that no prohibited animal proteins are fed to ruminant animals as a means of preventing Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease), checking that toxins produced by natural molds are not at harmful levels, and ensuring that feeds are produced in licensed facilities and are free from chemical contaminations.
“ We are on the cusp of a new era in regulation of animal feeds. I suspect that we in the regulation industry will be called upon to provide third party certification in the very near future,” said Steve Traylor, coordinator of the animal feed program. Third party certification refers to tracing the animal from the farm to the consumer, including the feed the animal ate.
Already, certain large fast food entities are requiring a “history” for all animal products that they use in their foods. By history, they want to make sure that the animals made into hamburger, for example, have not been exposed to illegal proteins and antibiotics and other potential residues.
In the 1930s, the Kentucky Legislature broadened the scope of the Feed Act to include the monitoring of pet foods for nutrient content and safety, probably because an estimated 25 percent of the canned dog food sold in the United States was consumed by humans, perhaps as an outcome of financial difficulties associated with the Great Depression. The law, still in effect today, assures pet owners that the food they feed to their pets contains what the label says it contains. Zoos, too, can be assured of the composition of the feed for their inhabitants.
Milk Inspection Program: It was the appalling dairy situation in the 1890s that led to revision of the Kentucky Pure Food Act of 1898, which mandated that the Agricultural Experiment Station monitor foods for being pure and unadulterated. The impetus for that law was that much of what consumers bought was either adulterated or misrepresented, and sometimes was even unhealthful. Milk was commonly “fortified” to keep it from clabbering, “cider” was made from corn and burnt sugar, “maple” syrup was adulterated with glucose, oleomargarine was sold as butter, and flour sometimes contained as much as 25 percent cornmeal. In addition, neutral spirits were colored and flavored and sold as aged straight whiskey (see related story). The Experiment Station’s regulatory services unit vigorously enforced the law so that the consumers were infinitely better protected than ever before.
With the reorganization of the Kentucky Board of Health in 1918, the pure food aspect of the Experiment Station was transferred to that board, with the Experiment Station still conducting the analytical, chemical, and bacteriological examinations for the Board of Health. At the same time, the Kentucky Legislature added to the Experiment Station the role of monitoring the weighing and testing of milk and cream, which was to ensure that farmers were paid accurately for the amount of milk they sold to manufacturers. (Testing involved determining the amount of butterfat in each lot of milk a farmer sold; milk with a high butterfat content was worth more than an equal weight with less butterfat.) In fulfilling this mission, the division became responsible for licensing milk handlers, laboratories, transfer stations, butterfat testers, and haulers.
“ Our group maintains integrity in the system from the farm to the processor. We protect all parties involved in the milk production process,” said Chris Thompson, coordinator of the milk regulatory program.
Seed Inspection Program: Farmers and home gardeners alike have great hopes when they plant seeds in the ground. They hope that the seeds germinate into plants and that the seeds have little or no weed seed accompanying them.
The Seed Inspection Program randomly selects seed to test—for both farmers and gardeners—to make sure that the label information is correct concerning germination, pure seed, and estimated amount of weed seed. The seed laboratory operated by the division also checks to see how much chaff, dirt, and debris is in the seed, because that affects the measurement when consumers buy the seed. If the label isn’t correct, the wholesaler or retailer will need to make modifications on the label.
“We also publish yearly a list of seed vendors whose samples we’ve tested, and the results of those tests. Consumers can be assured that what they purchase—whether it is for their corn field or sweet corn patch—is what the label indicates,” said David Buckingham, coordinator of the program.
Last year, more than 2,700 samples were taken from seed dealers and consumer retail outlets, and the seeds were germinated for testing. Sometimes the composition of the seed package is way off.
“ We’ve had lawn mixes that indicate the package is 80 percent bluegrass and 20 percent fescue; upon analysis, we’ve found only 40 percent bluegrass and 60 percent a mixture of other kinds of seed. Weed seed content is also an occasional problem,” Buckingham said.
Soil tests—chemical analyses of soils—provide farmers with precise information about how much nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus are available to their crops. If the soil is lower in soil nutrients than is necessary to grow the best crop possible, the farmer can elect to add nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus. Soil tests also provide information about soil pH and micro-nutrients that are used by plants, including calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
“Soil test results take some of the guess work
out of crop production. It means that farmers can add to their fields
the right blend of fertilizer they need,” said Frank Sikora,
coordinator of the soil testing program.
Soil testing laboratories in Lexington and at the Research and Education Center at Princeton annually process about 50,000 samples submitted from across the state.
The soil testing laboratories also analyze animal waste that can be used to supply nutrients to crops. This service is increasing as more and more farmers realize animal manure can be an asset to the farm rather than a liability.
“ Food safety and environmental protection especially are becoming larger issues. Prevention of antibiotic residues and other potential microbial and chemical contaminants that could be introduced from feeds will be increasingly expected of us. Maintaining consumer confidence in the wholesomeness and safety of milk, meat, and eggs will be a vital part of our program,” Miller said.
In addition, public concern with the environmental impact of fertilizers will mean that the division will become more involved with the interface between fertilizers and soil testing. The seed program will increase its monitoring of seed for genetic purity and bioengineering, he said.
“ Long term, the division will continue to build on the established programs and services but take on new activities associated with food safety, environmental protection, and genetic engineering,” Miller said.
Food safety and environmental protection especially are becoming larger issues. Prevention of antibiotic residues and other potential microbial and chemical contaminants that could be introduced from feeds will be increasingly expected of Regulatory Services.