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Flawed comptroller probe into food inspections lists north country businesses that met requirements

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The state comptroller office’s recent announcement that the Department of Agriculture and Markets allowed hundreds of food-related businesses to open without required preoperational inspections appears to be flawed, as two north country businesses included on the list actually met requirements.

The comptroller’s office, which completed an audit on the matter, emailed the Times a list of 439 businesses it claimed did not complete required inspections from the department’s Division of Food Safety and Inspection before opening in 2013. The list included St. Lawrence Brewing Co., Canton, which opened in June, and Pemm LLC, Avon, which purchased the former Sugar Creek convenience store with Mobil station at 1279 Coffeen St.

An email from an Ag and Markets spokesman revealed that St. Lawrence Brewing Co. successfully completed a preoperational inspection last year on May 13. The company opened in June.

Pemm LLC was not required to complete a preoperational inspection for the Watertown convenience store it bought. Inspections aren’t required when one chain takes over another chain of multiple stores, according to Joseph Morrissey, the department’s public information officer.

“This is a transfer of ownership and we treat this under our regular inspection routine,” he wrote in an email.

The Watertown convenience store passed an inspection July 8.

Kenneth M. Hebb, owner of St. Lawrence Brewing Co., 19 Commerce Lane, said he had not been contacted by the state comptroller’s office about its report. He was surprised to hear his business had been incorrectly included in the list of businesses that opened without food safety inspections from Ag and Markets.

“We filed all of the forms and completed the preoperational inspection in May,” he said. “We entered production in June and began marketing our product at the beginning of August.”

No delays were caused by Ag and Markets, he said. But the business had to wait for its liquor license to arrive from the state Liquor Authority before it could market products.

“We were operational in June and had beer in cooler ready to sell, but we were unable to market our products for 45 days,” Mr. Hebb said.

A call made Friday to Mark Johnson, spokesman for the comptroller, was not returned.

Errors in the comptroller’s audit discovered by the Times appear to call into question its credibility. A news release from the comptroller’s office claimed that as of June 4, inspections due for almost 5,000 establishments had not been completed by Ag and Markets. From April 1, 2011, through June 4, 2013, the department received 5,724 consumer complaints for investigation, and inspectors obtained 3,894 food samples for testing to identify potential violations of food safety.

The audit found that a random sample of 45 new establishments showed that license applications had languished for an average of six months. Nineteen of those businesses already were preparing food without the required inspection, results showed. They included fish markets, delis and convenience stores.

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