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.
Dr. Kis Robertson Hale, the Deputy Assistant Administrator (DAA) for the Office of Public Health Science (OPHS) and the FSIS Chief Public Health Veterinarian, knew her career path would be in the life sciences. While other kids her age were listening to music and lamenting their homework assignments, 12-year-old Hale was dreaming of writing science textbooks and caring for cats and dogs as a veterinarian. By the time Hale entered college, she had narrowed her focus to public health.
In 2003, Hale achieved one of her goals: she graduated from Tuskegee University with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine. Her other goal — to work in public health — came to fruition when she joined FSIS’ Office of Field Operations (OFO) as an Enforcement, Investigations and Analysis Officer (EIAO). As an EIAO, Hale conducted food safety assessments at processing and slaughter establishments and ensured that the plants performed their pre-operation sanitation checks and followed their Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans. Hale was an EIAO for two years and credits it with helping her become the professional she is today.
“After graduating from veterinary school, I went right into the EIAO position,” Hale said. “It helped me to understand the various components of an effective food safety system and become familiar with the HACCP-based regulatory framework of the Agency. When I came on board, HACCP was still unfamiliar territory for many establishments in my circuit. It was actually a good time to come to FSIS because everyone was learning something new, not just me.”
Hale said that her two-year assignment as an EIAO has also helped her grow as a leader.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to work in the field. Discussing regulatory requirements with plant management can often lead to difficult conversations,” she said. “It forces you to learn how to get your point across confidently and assertively while also being respectful, professional and diplomatic.”
In 2005, Hale was detailed to OPHS to monitor and investigate consumer complaints as a surveillance epidemiologist. She was part of a team responsible for identifying foodborne illnesses and responding to reports of contaminated food. The six-month detail eventually became a permanent position for three years.
Discovering another passion
Three years later, Hale’s longstanding interest in epidemiology prompted her to join the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). While assigned to the Poxvirus and Rabies Branch, she quickly realized that rabies was just as fascinating and important to public health as food safety. Her work immersed her in rabies-related research and outbreak response. She led several epidemiologic investigations that took her around the world to Thailand, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2011, Hale returned to FSIS in OPHS’ Applied Epidemiology Staff (AES) as a senior epidemiologist, eventually serving as AES deputy director. On Oct. 1, 2017, Hale was appointed OPHS’ DAA.
Hale’s new role
Hale now works with OPHS Assistant Administrator Dr. David Goldman in overseeing FSIS’ science program. Their team consists of approximately 300 microbiologists, chemists, pathologists, toxicologists, epidemiologists and risk assessors located in Washington, D.C., and at three field laboratories in Athens, Georgia; Albany, California, and St. Louis, Missouri. These specialists conduct laboratory analysis of pathogen and chemical contaminants in product samples; identify and evaluate potential foodborne hazards; determine estimates of human health risk; coordinate foodborne illness investigations; and design sampling programs. Hale says her team plays a critical role in limiting consumer exposure to foodborne illnesses and hazards.
My team impacts food safety largely by supporting and informing the efforts of our internal customers within FSIS,” Hale said. “For example, OPHS extracts scientific information from every sample that OFO collects in the establishments. OFO’s role is to see foodborne hazards with the naked eye. OPHS then verifies hazards with the help of microscopes and other laboratory instruments. Together both programs enable the Agency to verify food safety.”
Another example she provides is how OPHS works with the Office of Program and Policy Development (OPPD).
“OPHS mines information from various data sources and if it’s determined that there’s an emerging hazard or a certain trend that’s occurring, we’ll provide that information to OPPD. They will investigate and, if warranted, they’ll put their heads together and collaborate to develop new or change existing policy. These are examples of the FSIS One Team, One Purpose mindset; one program area informs or assists the other and that’s how each of us fit together to make a strong FSIS,” she said.
Career as a commissioned officer
Besides her new role as the DAA for OPHS, Hale is also a Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Hale joined their ranks in 2003, right before she came on board at FSIS.
“When I was in college, all I knew was that I wanted a career in public health. But I didn’t know what opportunities were out there for early-career veterinarians until I learned about FSIS. It was an easy decision to apply when I learned the Agency was actively recruiting commissioned corps officers,” she said.
Hale is an amateur violinist and loves to render colorful abstracts using unwanted cans of paint from big box hardware stores. The Atlanta native now lives in Maryland with her husband, Matthew, and their daughter, Coralie.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)