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

In 1985, Sheila McMillan graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition. Two years later, working at varying jobs unrelated to her degree and enjoying her freedom from the rigors of higher education, McMillan’s parents, Nelson (a U.S. postal employee) and Angelee (a federal clerk typist), asked her about her plans for the future. Her mother recommended the younger McMillan give the civil service a try.

McMillan considered her options. She could pursue a lucrative career in the private industry, or she could work in the public sector as a federal employee and improve the lives of the American people. McMillan chose the latter. She saw a posting for a food technologist with FSIS’ Office of Field Operations (OFO). “After reading the job description, I knew FSIS was the career path for me. In short, I had found my dream job,” McMillan said. “The announcement had everything I was looking for in a job. Principally, I would be responsible for making sure that food is produced safely, legally, and is the quality the product claimed.”

Sheila McMillan helps to raise awareness about food safety and the USDA’s role in it by participating in events such as Detroit’s Annual Community Day celebration.

Drawing on experience
Three decades later, McMillan is still in OFO, but is now an enforcement, investigations and analysis officer (EIAO) in Oak Park, Michigan. As an EIAO, her duties involve a variety of in-plant tasks and verification functions, to include conducting food safety assessments (which determines the adequacy of the plants’ food safety systems) and confirming that the businesses can produce safe, wholesome products per regulatory requirements. She also reviews Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures to ensure establishments’ equipment is clean and safe to use for food production, and analyzes Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans. McMillan said these plans are “ground zero” in preventing, reducing and eliminating identified food safety hazards.

“My job is to make sure scientific, technical or regulatory documents support all decisions made within the food system and each plant must adhere to those requirements. That’s where HACCP plans come into play,” McMillan said. “Establishments can write beautiful plans, but if they fail to implement them properly, then the plans do not serve their purpose. I evaluate these plans to make sure they are sound and scientifically based; identify the establishments’ biological, chemical and physical hazards; and ensure that the plans are implemented successfully. These are critical steps in preventing foodborne illnesses and dangers.”

To do her job efficiently, McMillan draws from her well of experiences, her investigative abilities and her “sixth sense.”

“I have a tool bag full of farm-to-consumer knowledge that I draw from every day,” she said. “My investigative skills come in handy when I’m conducting recall effectiveness checks at stores and restaurants making sure that products associated with recalls have been removed from commerce. Those skills coupled with my intuition comes into play to spot red flags. For example, if an establishment is cooking a lot of product, and I know they do not have the freezer space for cooling it all, the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand up. I’ll check their records, and if they are pristine, showing that the product is cooling as it should be, I follow my instincts and take the time to do some investigating. More times than not, my instincts are right.”

Bridging the gap
McMillan considers herself an ambassador for FSIS because she ensures consumers are safe from purchasing potentially hazardous or harmful products. She transfers information from the district office to establishments and back again. She also assists plant owners when issues arise.

“Often, problems are discovered during a food safety assessment,” McMillan said. “I’m there, along with the frontline supervisors, to talk the plant owner down from the proverbial ledge and to explain FSIS’ regulatory process. I feel that it’s my job to help them find solutions to their concerns, which could range from a labeling issue to finding the holes in their HACCP plans. I see us as partners, and without USDA, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to make a difference.”

She also extends her ambassador duties to FSIS employees and credits to the Agency’s i-Impact initiative for being the catalyst.

“As an i-Impact trainer, I facilitate communication with in-plant personnel and let them know that what they do every day, whatever the function, does make a difference in the world of food safety,” McMillan said. “I’m just so glad I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the program.”

Adventurer and family woman
McMillan is an avid traveler and hopes to one day visit Arizona, Colorado and Paris. She also enjoys spending time with family and hanging out with her mother, whom she affectionately calls her “shopping buddy.”

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