Editor’s note: This is a recent installment in a series of employee profiles being published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service, republished here with permission.

Most people know about foodborne illnesses, but how many people have had their lives drastically affected by one? Maria Frazier, an import inspector in the Alameda district, knows three such people. Her personal brush with foodborne illness at a young age made such an indelible mark on her that she chose food safety to be her life’s work.

“When I was barely a teenager, I saw my 25-year-old cousin, Romulo, suffer for five years with trichinosis from eating undercooked pork. He would scream in pain because his head would hurt,” Frazier said. “During that time, I learned that food could cause diseases and death. Later, I saw firsthand how an inspector can help keep food safe, which began my path toward a career in food safety.”

Maria Frazier prepares to check the condition of containers in a facility in Bell Gardens, CA.

If family and friends become ill and don’t know why, Frazier strongly encourages them to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. Frazier recalls two more recent incidents related to organisms that cause foodborne illness.

“I lost my uncle, Spartaco, three years ago in Ecuador because he was sickened with E. coli. He complained about his stomach hurting a lot, so I kept telling him to go to the doctor. When he finally went, which was three weeks later, he died. Before this, he was a healthy 50-year-old man. It affected me deeply,” Frazier said. “I also have a friend who lives in Spain. He thought he was having a stroke because one of his eyes was droopy. I insisted that he see his doctor. When he did, he learned he had two Trichinella roundworms and their eggs in his brain. Luckily, doctors were able to remove the worms and the eggs. My friend is doing better now.”

From South America to FSIS
Frazier credits her drive to achieve and to care for others to the wise adages she would hear her mother say about dealing with hardships while growing up in an impoverished country.

“My father died eight days after I was born and my mother taught me that when you’re on the bottom the only choice you have is to go up,” Frazier said. “Mom also taught me that in the face of adversity only the strong survived. I was a weird kid with interest in animal feces and she said that was OK.”

It took Frazier, her sister and her mother 11 years to emigrate to the U.S. from Guayaquil, Ecuador. Their new home was Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and it was there that Frazier’s food safety career began. She obtained a position as an assistant supervisor in a large poultry plant, which eventually led her to FSIS.

Her life’s calling
Her personal experiences with foodborne illnesses, along with the knowledge she’s gained in her 10 years of experience with FSIS, motivate Frazier as she performs her job duties every day.

“My re-inspection duties consist of verifying that product labels are legible and correct; package containers are not dented, damaged, swelling or leaking; and products contain appropriate certifications. I also prepare product samples for testing,” Frazier said.

“Beef from Australia, New Zealand and Brazil; chicken from Chile; pork from Poland and Mexico; processed egg products from the Netherlands and Canada; and Siluriformes fish from Vietnam and China can be found on Americans’ dinner tables on any given day or at any given time. It is my mission to keep people from getting sick, or worse.”

Frazier likens the entire FSIS workforce to superheroes. “We may not use a cape to save people’s lives, but I do believe we make a difference to the American consumer,” she said. “All the hard work that we do is worth it, if we can save just one person. I know we make a difference.”

Making food safety a family affair
Frazier considers educating Spanish-speaking consumers about being food safe an added bonus to her day job. She volunteers and conducts outreach events far and wide, and has encouraged her entire family to get involved.

“Since 2013, I have been visiting Rivera Middle School in Pico Rivera, California (close to Hollywood), speaking with students and teachers about using food thermometers and food safety, in general,” Frazier said.

Over the summer, Frazier and her husband, Kevin, an FSIS consumer safety inspector in the Alameda district, along with their kids, Wesley, 19, and Kristen, 12, volunteered to staff the USDA’s Food Safety Discovery Zone.

“We didn’t mind driving four hours each way from our home in Pico Rivera to Las Vegas, and then five hours to and from home to Sacramento,” Frazier said. “We did it because educating the public about food safety is a passion of mine, and I take the extra step to inform people about protecting their households.”

On a personal note
In her free time, Frazier enjoys searching for celebrities while visiting Hollywood. She’s had a fascination with celebrities since childhood. “Watching TV and dreaming about movie stars were the only outlets I had because I grew up in complete poverty and they allowed me to dream of something better for my life,” she said.

Frazier has spied Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Harrison Ford, Cameron Monaghan and Elijah Wood, to name a few.

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