Special Assignment: Forgotten Formula? Part 2

News 12 at 6 o'clock, April 29, 2010

ATLANTA---A News 12 investigation into expired baby formula is getting the attention of the state government agency that's supposed to keep your food safe.

In a rare interview, the Georgia Department of Agriculture commissioner admitted that our News 12 investigation did more than find forgotten formula on the local store shelves. Tommy Irvin says we found a problem with the entire system.

In January, News 12 went shopping undercover at eleven stores in the Augusta area. We found bad baby formula at six of those stores. That's more than half, and that is a problem. It puts the youngest and most vulnerable member of your family at risk of missing out on the nutrients she needs, or of getting sick.

We took our findings to Atlanta, to the state agency that's supposed to regulate this.

"We want to stop that, but we want the resources to make sure that it never happens again," said agriculture commissioner Tommy Irvin. He's been in charge since 1969 and plans to step down in January.

Irvin is battling Parkinson's Disease, which affects his speech, but he was so upset about what we found that he wanted to talk to us.

After a few minutes, it became too difficult for him to get the words out. He had to stop the interview. "I wish I didn't have this Parkinson's," he said, passing the mic to Natalie Adan in the Consumer Protection division.

But Commissioner Irvin wanted to give it another try, so mid-interview he sat down with us again. This time he showed us a grocery store receipt for a shopping trip in which he'd been double-charged for grapes.

Irvin says that's proof stores make mistakes, like forgetting about expired formula, or not charging customers the right amount.

News 12: "It would be easy to miss."

Irvin: "That's why we need the consumer to help us."

Irvin says consumers need to notice the fine print on receipts and expiration dates and, if there's a problem, report it. Commissioner Irvin could give the store a warning, a fine, or worse.

"You know, I can close the store. I can close it down. I have that authority," he said.

What he says he doesn't have, though, is enough resources. Our forgotten formula investigation upset him, but it didn't surprise him.

He wanted to know if we looked at anything besides baby food. We didn't, and this is what he had to say about that: "Well, I wish you looked at everything. If baby food was in that area that we don't have an inspector right now, there's probably other food items too."

Irvin's worried a lot of things are slipping through the cracks.

"It's a much bigger story than you found some out of date formula on the shelf. You found a system that's flawed."

The Department of Agriculture doesn't just regulate food. We're talking about a lot of other things too, like gasoline, fertilizer, animals, and businesses that sell puppies and kittens.

It's a system that's supposed to protect you...but it may not be.

We also contacted the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, since some of the expired formula we found came from Aiken County. Here is what a spokeswoman for the agency had to say:

"On the state level, the SC Food and Cosmetic Law does not require removal of items from retail shelves by a 'use-by' or 'purchase by' date, so our SCDA inspectors do not monitor dates for food items."
- Becky Walton, SC Department of Agriculture

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