Sometimes when a door swings open, opportunity for change has the chance to enter.

That’s what some members of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians are hoping will happen now that two top food safety positions at the U.S, Department of Agriculture are in line for new leadership.

On July 31, Al Almanza retired from his job as the head of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). He is now head of global food safety for Brazil’s mega meatpacker JBS SA.  Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue selected Paul Kiecker, an FSIS career employee, to serve as acting administrator for the sub-agency.

At the same time, Perdue named Carmen Rottenberg to serve as acting deputy undersecretary for food safety.   There’s not been an undersecretary for food safety for more than three and a half years. Rottenberg began working for FSIS in 2007 and has served in various positions.

FSIS’s mission is to protect the public’s health by ensuring the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products.

Opportunity beckons
The opportunity the public health veterinarians are hoping for with the pending staff changes is a renewed commitment by USDA leadership to boost the agency’s ranks of veterinarians in slaughter houses, administrative positions and supervisory positions.

Increasing the number of veterinarians in those three areas is an intrinsic part of a staffing plan released in February by the American Veterinary Medical Association and supported by National Association of Federal Veterinarians.

William James

The plan also recommends that FSIS provide or pay for 40 hours of professional management and/or food safety training per year for veterinarians. This would include professional meetings that could apply to work performed by FSIS.

It also recommends that FSIS partner with veterinary colleges to include provide information about public practice, especially within FSIS, in the annual curriculum for each veterinary student.

The plan was triggered by members’ concerns that for the first time ever, the agency was discussing putting non-veterinarians in charge of slaughter plants.

“A disaster waiting to happen,” said veterinarian William James, who capped off his 28-year career at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with three years as the agency’s chief veterinarian from 2008-2011. “That’s why we’re bringing it up now before it happens.”

Do you eat meat or poultry?
“If you eat meat, then this is something you care about,” said James.

He said for the sake of food safety it’s important to have a pipeline of veterinary expertise from the slaughter house all the way up to the top of the USDA.

“You need this expertise to protect people from foodborne diseases,” he said.

Brian Ronholm, who was deputy undersecretary of food safety at USDA from April 2011 until January this year, agrees in principle.

Brian Ronholm

“Increasing the number of veterinarians in FSIS would enhance the agency’s ability to reduce foodborne illness rates,” said Ronholm, who is now senior director of regulatory policy at Arent Fox LLP in Washington D.C.

Veterinarian Michael Gilsdorf, a member of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians since April 1983 and president of the association in 1995-1996, also agreed. He said FSIS conducts its food safety inspection duties at the “nexus of animal health and public health.”

That nexus is where bacteria in meat and poultry, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria, become foodborne pathogens.

There are more than 70 known animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans and cause disease, Gilsdorf said.

“The ultimate responsibility within FSIS for ensuring the meat is safe for human consumption rests with the supervisory public health veterinarians (SPHVs)” Gilsdorf said, pointing out that veterinarians receive formal education in disease processes, microbiology and zoonotic diseases that are necessary for conducting effective inspections before and after animals are slaughtered.

Public health veterinarians have also received formal education in sanitary procedures, while few food inspectors have the education to understand the microbiological processes that are the basis for food safety requirements at slaughter plants, he said.

James said the safety of FSIS-regulated foods is too important to leave to people without the appropriate education to supervise inspection in all slaughter plants.

“Veterinarians are the single best source within FSIS for this expertise, but not a single veterinarian can be found at the head of a single office in FSIS,” James said.

Ronholm said his experience as deputy undersecretary of food safety at USDA proved to him that agency leaders need specialized knowledge and skills.

“It is important that the new leadership at FSIS is comprised of people with strong public health credentials and policy acumen,” Ronholm said. “It’s also essential that the new leaders not only be persuasive advocates for food safety priorities, but also ardent supporters of FSIS civil servants.”

Eric Mittenthal, spokesman for the North American Meat Institute, the leading voice for the meat industry, said ultimately it is an FSIS hiring decision.

“Veterinarians play an important role in meat inspection, but food safety monitoring occurs at various points throughout the process,” he said. “It is FSIS’s responsibility to balance those needs throughout the inspection process and ensure that employees are well trained and able to properly perform their duties so Americans can continue to enjoy safe meat and poultry.”

Why this staffing plan now?
Gilsdorf said there’s a “critical workforce situation that has developed within the FSIS that needs immediate attention.” Although the overall vacancy rate is a worrisome 12 percent, he said it is as alarmingly high as 21 percent in some of the 10 FSIS districts throughout the nation.

Another problem is a 10 percent shortage of food inspectors — higher in some districts — who work under the supervision of the supervisory public health veterinarians. That shortage means that the supervisory veterinarians have to fill in for the vacant food inspectors and therefore are not able to perform or complete all of their other supervisory veterinarian duties, James said.

“Up until now the supervisory public health veterinarians (SPHV) have been able to ensure the food is safe and wholesome,” he said, “but they cannot continue to cover multiple slaughter establishments and multiple vacancies without jeopardizing food safety in the near future.”

Michael Gilsdorf

Gilsdorf and his colleagues believe it is time to fix the problem.

“We believe the alarming SPHV vacancy level in FSIS is an important reason for the astounding increase in foodborne illnesses in 2016 associated with FSIS products reported by the agency in June,” said Gilsdorf.

James made a similar point, again with the agency’s own data from its “Strategic Plan Fiscal Year 2011-2016” that shows a 72 percent jump in the number of Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli O157: H7 illnesses from products regulated by FSIS. In 2015, there were 382,123 cases. In 2016, that number had jumped to 657,405 cases. In the report, FSIS attributed the increase to a new “highly ambitious” method of monitoring illness trends.

But, James said information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Foodnet database has shown no real progress in bringing down foodborne illnesses in the past 10 years.

“This is what happens when the agency lacks effective leadership,” he said. “When you’ve made no progress in 10 years, then you know you’re doing something wrong. The agency needs to be making progress instead of treading water.”

Problems and solutions
The staffing plan asserts that FSIS has not made the supervisory public health veterinarian positions attractive enough to retain more highly qualified veterinarians. The pay to work in a slaughterhouse is at least $10,000 a year less — oftentimes far less — than what a vet could earn in private practice, according to veterinarian organizations.

A spokesperson for FSIS said that the agency is required by law to hire public health veterinarians in certain positions and that the agency cannot comment on who might be selected by the administration to run the Food Safety Inspection Service.

Another fly in the ointment is that currently there are more veterinary jobs available than there are people graduating from veterinary school. That translates into some stiff competition. And not surprisingly, many new veterinarians are looking for jobs caring for companion animals, not conducting slaughterhouse inspections.

Gilsdorf said the staffing plan recommends recruitment incentives such as 25 percent pay bonuses for the first two years for all locations. Another incentive could be student loan repayment of $5,000 for 10 years with a service agreement. Veterinarians have among the highest student loan balances of any profession, often ranging from $130,000 to $150,000.

“We have an opportunity to restore professional leadership and bring in enough veterinarians so inspection teams can be supervised,” James said.

As for the money needed to do it, he said that FSIS’s budget hasn’t been cut and it can redirect some of its money if needed. The association estimates that about $10 million in FSIS appropriations would be needed to bring the agency’s food inspection force up to full strength.

James said more staff won’t lead to higher meat prices because it’s FSIS, not the meat industry, that will be paying for it.

Photo illustration

James said he knows public health veterinarian jobs require a certain type of person with a certain mindset.

“If you save someone’s pet poodle, you’re a hero,” he said. “But you can go your entire career as a public health veterinarian and no one will think of you that way. Yet one good decision can save many lives. The rewards for those with the right mindset is greater than anything from private practice.”

Gilsdorf agreed, saying the people who work as public health veterinarians see it as a service to humanity and adding that another group of civil servants has the power to make sure their service continues.

“Congress can resolve this situation rapidly,” said Gilsdorf.

Besides sharing the staffing plan with FSIS leadership, the national association has also been gathering support for it from members of Congress, commodity groups, and other veterinary associations, including swine and bovine veterinarian associations.

Another positive sign is that the current U.S. House Budget Report directs FSIS to address this issue, but Gilsdorf said the agency needs additional immediate help to fill 120 vacant supervisory public health veterinarian positions.

The FSIS spokesperson said as the largest employer of federal veterinarians in the United States, FSIS recognizes the knowledge and expertise they bring to the agency. As such, it continues to look for recruitment and retention incentives to maintain and expand their contributions to FSIS’s mission.

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