March 4, 2004 – Because the V.I. government does not have a laboratory testing facility, neither St. Thomas Dairies nor St. Croix Dairy Products can get its milk certified as Grade A.
This means that consumers can't be sure of what they're getting — and it also means that St. Thomas Dairies can no longer sell its milk to cruise lines.
That represents a loss annually of "about $1 million in sales," Fred Hintz, president of St. Thomas Dairies, says.
Because of the loss of business, St. Thomas Dairies has reduced its work week to 36 hours from 40, drastically cut back overtime and laid off two employees. Hintz said two other vacancies occurred by attrition, so the work force has been cut by four.
The ball apparently got dropped a while back in the Health Department, but Sen. Douglas E. Canton Jr. said on Wednesday that efforts are being made to find a way to do the Food and Drug Administration testing.
Canton, who chairs the Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee, said the testing is done intermittently, and there's no need for a full-time person to do it. He said a contract for the service may be awarded to the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service or the hospitals.
The dairies have the testing equipment, and Hintz said it would take one person one day a week to do the tests.
However, he said, that person needs to be trained. The FDA is now setting up its training schedule for next year, he said, and if the company is not to lose another season's worth of sales to cruise lines, it's imperative that the testing program be organized now.
Hintz said the federal government may fund the training of staff to do the testing.
Canton said he will push a bill to implement the testing program and establish standards once all the details are ironed out.
Canton also said he was waiting for dairy industry officials to send him information on how to set up the program. However, Hintz said he had already done so.
Until last year, St. Thomas Dairies supplied milk and other dairy products to about 10 cruise lines operating in the Eastern Caribbean. But last November, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the cruise lines that 5 points would be deducted on their sanitary inspections if they bought milk not certified Grade A.
No one could be reached at the CDC for comment. The FDA and Health Commissioner-designate Darlene Carty also did not return calls.
A plan to have the milk tested under the Puerto Rican government umbrella fell through when Puerto Rico refused to "adopt" the Virgin Islands dairies. Hintz said that could be because the cruise lines that formerly bought milk from St. Thomas Dairies now buy it in Puerto Rico.
Hintz said testing at St. Thomas Dairies has never shown any problems with things such as coliform bacteria, so the milk should easily be able to meet Grade A requirements. "But we would probably have to do a little sprucing up" of the plant, he added.
St. Thomas Dairies makes its milk out of dried non-fat milk solids from Canada and frozen butterfat from Ireland. The company stopped adding fresh milk from its on-site cows after Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995.
"We couldn't find them, but when we did, their milk had dried up," Hintz said, noting that cows have to be milked regularly to keep the milk flowing.
Hintz said St. Croix Dairy Products uses fresh milk in its product. No one at the St. Croix dairy returned a call seeking comment.
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