Understanding food safety

Veterinary students participate in FSIS summer program
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The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service recently concluded its first phase of the Veterinary Student Employment Program. The USDA-FSIS funded the 16-week program, 10 weeks of which took place this summer, in response to the growing need for veterinary students to consider public service careers. This year's program marks the first time FSIS has hired 24 veterinary student employees, with previous groups limited to 12 in 2000, 2002, and 2003. The agency committed approximately $450,000 to hire, train, and pay for the housing and travel of the program's 24 veterinary students, who were all in their first or second year of college. The FSIS began recruitment of the students in fall 2004 at the 28 U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine.

Once aboard, each student was assigned to an FSIS public health veterinarian mentor and spent time in slaughter plants and the veterinarians' offices. The mentors oversaw the students' work experience and encouraged growth and understanding of how the FSIS protects public health daily by ensuring a safe and secure food supply in meat and poultry establishments. Students were allowed to choose their duty station from more than 20 U.S. facilities.

"Interning for the Food Safety and Inspection Service this summer in San Antonio, Texas, has been a very rewarding experience," said Katherine Ralston, student at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. "The insight I gained emphasizes the importance of all veterinarians' roles in promoting public health and the potential public impact one can make from early awareness programs."

During the program, all 24 students traveled to a food safety laboratory in Athens, Ga., the FSIS Technical Services Center in Omaha, Neb., and the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. They were exposed to the many career paths of FSIS veterinarians, who make up the largest federal service cadre of public health veterinarians—1,000 of them. In one role, FSIS veterinarians supervise other public health professionals to ensure that slaughter or processing establishments under FSIS jurisdiction comply with sanitation standards, zoonotic pathogen reduction, and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Systems.

"This program has shown the diversity in the field of public health available to veterinarians and the many opportunities provided by FSIS to explore the field," said Adrienne Dunham, a student at Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine. Dunham was stationed in Rantoul, Ill., at a pork slaughter facility. During the program, she visited a few processing plants that prepared ready-to-eat meals such as frozen dinners and beef jerky.

"On these different visits, I spoke with veterinarians and inspectors who gave me their personal views of their jobs and how important they were to food safety and security," Dunham said. "The benefit of working in a mentor-guided program such as this is you are allowed to form your own opinions of the job through personalization of your experience."

Dunham said she had a mentor who ensured she understood how instrumental veterinarians are in the slaughter facility by implementing humane handling of the animals and counteracting terrorist activity.

Students were asked to commit a minimum of 10 full-time weeks of employment. The overall goal of the program is for the students to complete 16 full-time weeks of employment, or 640 hours, prior to obtaining their DVM degree. Completing 16 full-time weeks can be accomplished during school breaks such as summers and holidays. Once they've graduated, students can be noncompetitively selected for any job in FSIS for which they qualify. The FSIS offers recruitment incentives for critical vacancies, including hiring bonuses ($9,000 to $12,000) and repayment of student loans up to $10,000 per year. Qualified students would receive the first $10,000 with a three-year work commitment and then subsequent payments up to $10,000 per year with each additional year of employment, with the total not to exceed $60,000, per federal government rules.

"I had not previously considered a career in public health with USDA-FSIS and, honestly, the idea of spending my summer on a kill floor in a slaughterhouse was initially not appealing," said Katherine Murphy, a student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Today, I am pleased that I did not allow my misconceptions to stop me from pursuing this experience. I am currently considering a career with USDA-FSIS and am exploring the possibility of obtaining a masters in public health." Murphy recommended the program to any veterinary student who is interested in learning about alternative options to private practice.

Other students from this summer's program were Whitney Miller, Colorado State University; Carolyn Deshaies, Cornell University; Jill Gregorieff, University of Florida; Jared Settle, Clint Franks, and Jami Fourez, University of Illinois; Arron Mailen, Kansas State University; Melissa Lowman and Jennifer Johnson, Michigan State University; Ryan Reid, Rachael Dayton, and Cheryl Igielski, University of Minnesota; Charles Austin Hines, Mississippi State University; Jeein Chung, The Ohio State University; Jennifer Grimes and Carla Prahl, Oklahoma State University; Angela Smith, University of Tennessee; Stephanie Smalls and Idris El-Amin, Tuskegee University; and Leo Vranich and Kerry Collins, Virginia-Maryland Regional.

For more information on the FSIS program, call (800) 370-3747, Ext. 2003, or visit www.fsis.usda.gov and click on "Careers," then "Special Employment Programs."