Opinion

The Meat & Poultry Daily News recently did a question and answer session with Paul Kiecker, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator since last March 12.  It’s worth reading in its entirety at M&P,  and I am going to steal some quotes here.

Kiecker certainly deserves the attention for rising to the top of one of these civil agencies as it is no small feat.

I lived in a Seattle suburb for several years where our mayor was the retired top administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He was my all-time favorite as a mayor because he feared nothing, supported his department heads, and made timely decisions.

At its core, the federal civil service is supposed to reward and promote based on merit. Those who rise to the top should be the “best of the best.” And the system produces some really interesting people.   

We saw that with Al Almanza, who started as an East Texas meat inspector and ended up as USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator for more than a decade.   

The FSIS Administrator is ultimately in charge of a $1 billion budget, 10,000 professionals, and inspection services for about 6,200 meat and poultry establishments. The FSIS Administrator is not always the most popular person.   

Almanza had his detractors in the FSIS C-Suite.  But he also carried an extra title as USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food safety because he had the full support of the Secretary of Agriculture.

After the 2016 election, Almanza left the government for the top food safety job with international meat company JBS. The new Secretary of Agriculture,  Sonny Perdue, replaced him with agency lawyer Carmen Rottenberg who held the top job from  2017 until early 2020 when she left for the private sector

Perdue then picked Kiecker as FSIS Administrator. He joined the agency in 1988, starting as a food inspector. He had virtually every job between inspector and administrator.

He was a district manager in both Madison, WI, and Springdale, AR.

He also served as an executive associate for Regulatory Operations and Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Field Operations, the major focus on inspection, in Washington, DC. And he worked as a Compliance Investigator and a Supervisory Compliance Investigator with the Office of Investigation, Enforcement, and Audit.

Kiecker said his many jobs taught him what FSIS is supposed to do and he worked at every level of the agency. Since 2017, Kiecker was second only to Rottenberg at the top of the agency.

He took over as administrator March 12, 2019, just as the pandemic was taking hold.

“Our No. 1 priority has been to make our inspections in the field and conditions for our inspectors as safe as possible. We’ve followed all the CDC and OSHA guidelines,” Kiecker told Meat & Poultry. “At first, if you remember, it was a bit confusing. No face coverings. Then we were cleared to wear them. As inspectors and regulators, we haven’t missed anything. Obviously, with the plants operating at a slower speed and level, that helped us out. We also got help from the AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) and APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), volunteering to work the slaughter lines and processing lines. Up to now, a plant never had to slow down because we weren’t available.”

Kiecker says FSIS inspection personnel have been “on patrol” during the pandemic. If inspectors didn’t get to every task, they picked the highest priorities. “We’ve collected the same number of samples, there’s nothing we missed there.”

He says COVID-19 has not taken the agency’s attention away from pathogens, allergens, and foreign materials. “No impact on those areas, like ante-mortem, post-mortem, humane handling, HACCP verification, SSOPs (sanitation). We did have to adjust products that had been going to restaurants and school lunch (business) dried up, so instead, they have moved into retail.”

Communication with inspection personnel in the field is more important because of the pandemic, Kiecker says.

“Three times a day, we let them know what changes are taking place. We’re also trying to connect our field operations employees (inspectors) more closely. Equipment is very important, face masks, shields, hand sanitizer.

“Dr. Mindy Brashears (Under Secretary for Food Safety) and I have been going to many plants in the last couple of months. The plants don’t look the same – face shields and coverings, people standing in hallways with a sanitizer, temperature checks. We have communications with managers at plants, and the regulated establishments can call us, as well. We told plants with COVID-19 procedures in place that our people follow their procedures, as well. If plants require testing, our people would be tested, too. It didn’t take very long for the plants to put these procedures in place.”

Kiecker says the FSIS is moving ahead with its own priorities. 

 Yes, we’ve` been able to move forward. Our new poultry inspection, our new swine inspection is moving forward. With most plants under normal operation, we’re looking to have more plant facilities come under these new systems. We’re also moving forward with the egg rule, that would have HACCP regulations for egg product processing.”

“In June, FSIS announced plans to expand this testing to all beef products currently analyzed for E. coli O157: H7 and asked for comments due this month (September). The testing in raw beef manufacturing trimmings has been done since June 2012. Verification testing for ground beef, bench trim, and other raw ground beef components wasn’t done because the agency needed to expand laboratory capacity and evaluate data from sampling raw beef trimmings. Those additional products were already being tested for E. coli O157: H7.

“We’re moving ahead with this expansion because non-O157: H7 STEC is linked to serious, life-threatening human illnesses, including recent outbreaks and death. We’ve been behind on the ground beef. We will respond to comments and announce when we will start this additional sampling in a Federal Register notice.”

Who knows. Kiecker might yet be a good mayor for some city out there. Good mayors seem to be in short supply these days.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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