Compliance Investigator Joseph Ndungu is a six-year FSIS employee in the Northeast Region of the Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit’s (OIEA) Compliance Investigation Division (CID) and part of the investigative arm of the Agency, whose mission is to protect U.S. food in commerce.
Ndungu and other compliance investigators contribute to the FSIS mission through surveillance and investigation of violations of FSIS regulations and the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) and the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA). They ensure the removal of unsafe products from commerce through detentions, civil seizures and voluntary recalls; and they develop legal cases through surveillance and investigation activities to ensure that appropriate criminal, civil and administrative sanctions are carried out according to the acts and FSIS regulations.
Ndungu says, “I cover 11 counties in upper New Jersey and ensure that meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe, properly labeled and packaged according to what is laid out in FMIA, PPIA and EPIA. I do this by strictly adhering to FSIS directives and notices as guidance. But, I also know that I and other investigators are the face of FSIS because we interact with the public. It’s important to keep in mind that what we do and say could uplift or tarnish the Agency’s public image, so we have to thoroughly know the acts and the regulations.”
Following the clues
Being an effective investigator requires one to have keen observational, concentration, interviewing and deductive reasoning skills. An investigator also has to think quickly and to have the ability to detect deception. Ndungu possesses these traits.
He recalls an incident where during surveillance he visited a small retail store, also called a Tier 2 facility, which refers to small retail stores, live poultry markets, food banks and transporters. CID investigators are required to visit these locations for 30 percent of their schedule. The other 70 percent is allotted to visiting Tier 1 locations, such as warehouses and distributors that sell wholesale and distribute bulk amenable products in massive volumes that can reach more consumers through firsthand distribution and redistribution of product..
On the day he visited the small retail store, he was dressed as a regular customer and doing what customers do: perusing the meat and poultry products. Ndungu spied cooked empanadas, or chicken pies, on a hot display for sale. He did not see what he would expect to see to indicate an operating kitchen, such as deep fryers. In fact, he did not even see a kitchen. He reasoned that the empanadas were not being cooked on location at the store and wondered where they were being prepared. He spoke to a store manager about the product to get preliminary information, mainly asking about the product’s packaging and origin.
Once Ndungu had determined that the products were produced elsewhere and lacked marks of inspection, he identified himself as an FSIS compliance investigator and asked more probing questions about the products’ source, preparation, packaging, labeling, and invoices or bills of sale. From the “crumbs of information” he obtained, Ndungu was able to determine the producer of the product.
“The empanadas were made by some lady who didn’t even know about food safety, allergens, labeling or the USDA mark of Inspection,” Ndungu said. As an investigator, Ndungu says, “I never know what I’ll find the minute I walk into a warehouse, distributor, retail store, live poultry or custom slaughter facility. I must be ready and prepared for anything and everything, so I always make sure my flashlight, camera and, of course, my cell phone are all fully charged.”
In the spirit of interagency cooperation and building liaisons, Ndungu also works with the USDA Office of Inspector General and could work with other outside entities, such as the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department, and local fire, police and health departments.
Ndungu says, “If an investigator observes irregularities in commerce that are out of our CID/FSIS jurisdiction, but pertinent to the local health officials and vice versa, we let each other know. I’m always getting anonymous tips and leads from everywhere.”
Ndungu, a former paratrooper and food supply specialist with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, served three years in the military. Ndungu was deployed twice to Iraq and cooked for his fellow battle buddies — a service that he is very proud to have performed. He earned a Bachelor of Culinary Arts Administration Degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 2009 and obtained a Master of Science degree in Food Science from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development in 2012.
Ndungu says it was fate that he wound up at FSIS in 2012. “It is as if my whole life in the food industry was preparing me for this specific agency and position,” he said.
“When I was in the military, U.S. Army veterinarians would come to the base and monitor our food systems. They had all the food knowledge and didn’t talk much. They would come into the military dining facilities, especially if we had some freezer failure or refrigeration temperature issue, and they would immediately assess, determine and condemn everything in the freezer citing numerous military regulations and directives. I immediately knew that I wanted to be a consumer safety inspector (CSI) with FSIS. I wanted to make a difference and to learn about the regulations that govern our food industry.”
Ndungu joined FSIS as a CSI in 2012 and became an investigator in 2015. Since then, he has received recognition for his investigative and undercover work.
A native of Nairobi, Kenya, Joseph Ndungu calls Clifton, New Jersey home. Each year, he gives back to his community by volunteering and cooking meals for local immigrant groups in New York and New Jersey.
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