FSIS veterinary position created to improve retention

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has created a higher-graded position for veterinarians in response to long-standing challenges in the federal veterinary workforce.

Dr. Kis Robertson Hale, chief public health veterinarian and deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Public Health Science within the FSIS (see sidebar), announced at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in January that the agency has a new district veterinary medical officer (DVMO) position that is more focused on veterinary duties.

“We are making more use of the veterinarian skill set without putting strain on veterinarians with tasks that are undesired,” she said.

A slaughter house supervisor assesses quality of fresh meat
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employs 8,700 people. About 7,600 are frontline positions, including inspection personnel, laboratory employees, and investigators. FSIS says its employees inspected 161 million head of livestock, 9.8 billion poultry carcasses, and 2.7 billion pounds of liquid, frozen, and dried egg products in fiscal year 2023.

This position serves as primary contact for all veterinary duties associated with food safety, animal welfare, foreign animal disease surveillance, ante-mortem and postmortem procedures, and export certification at slaughter plants.

Previously, the primary position for veterinarians at FSIS was the role of supervisory public health veterinarian. But over the years, the agency received feedback that combining veterinary specific duties with supervision poses difficulties in achieving work-life balance and is one of the top reasons for attrition in this position. The hope is the new position will help address the agency challenges in hiring and retaining veterinarians by providing improved job satisfaction.

“(Supervisory duties) present staffing challenges and personnel issues that can get in the way of the technical work veterinarians are tasked with doing. It can be a lot to address,” Dr. Robertson-Hale said.

The DVMO position will provide an improved work experience that leverages veterinarians’ skills, she said, focusing on science and public health versus supervisory and administrative-related duties. These veterinarians will oversee more than one slaughter plant based on their geographic area and replace the need for supervisory veterinarian positions in certain locations.

The new position is at the GS-13 level, offering both higher pay and an extension of in-plant promotion potential to FSIS veterinarians, addressing two issues the agency has heard about from veterinarians. The base salary range is advertised as $103,409 to $147,934 per year based on the duty station.

She thanked the National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV) and the AVMA for their support and for providing input in developing the new position.

A version of this story appears in the May 2024 print issue of JAVMA

Dr. Kis Robertson Hale
Dr. Kis Robertson Hale

The U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) announced March 1 that it has commissioned Dr. Kis Robertson Hale as its chief veterinarian officer. She is a rear admiral in the USPHS Commissioned Corps.

Dr. Robertson-Hale will continue to hold her position as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) chief public health veterinarian and deputy assistant administrator of the Office of Public Health Science (OPHS). In these roles, she oversees the science behind the regulatory agenda at FSIS and represents the agency in One Health activities, according to the announcement.

The USPHS appointment underscores the critical role veterinarians play in safeguarding public health.

In her new appointment as chief veterinarian officer of the USPHS, Dr. Robertson-Hale will provide guidance to the Office of the Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on matters related to veterinary recruitment, assignment, deployment, retention, and career development.

There are 11 chief professional officers appointed to oversee a specific professional category within the Commissioned Corps, which has nearly 6,000 officers who serve in the USDA and other federal agencies. These leaders facilitate professional and community relationships to promote engagement with the USPHS Commissioned Corps and increase awareness of the Surgeon General’s initiatives, the announcement states.

“I am honored to be recognized by the Surgeon General as someone worthy of serving in this capacity,” Dr. Robertson-Hale said in the announcement. “At this point in my career, I aim to inspire others to grow and excel as leaders in public health, especially as the Commissioned Corps works to become a more agile workforce. Being a source of leadership and stability to other uniformed veterinary officers will be rewarding.”

Dr. Robertson Hale began her career in public health service soon after receiving her veterinary degree in 2003 from Tuskegee University. She started at the FSIS in the Office of Field Operations, where she worked as an enforcement, investigation, and analysis officer.

Dr. Robertson Hale later joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service in 2008, developed expertise on rabies, and transferred in 2010 to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where, as a CDC fellow in preventive medicine, she led an educational campaign to improve clinicians' adherence to protocols on rabies post-exposure prophylaxis. In 2011, Dr. Robertson Hale returned to the FSIS and joined OPHS’ applied epidemiology staff, ultimately being promoted to her current position in 2017.

In addition to her veterinary degree, she has a master’s in public health from the University of Minnesota. She is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.