By T. Anthony BellNovember 29, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 28, 2016) -- If it is edible and offered or sold for consumption at the commissary or any of the eating establishments here, it has survived the scrutiny of a small contingent of Army Veterinary Corps Soldiers.
The troops responsible -- four veterinary food inspection specialists -- not only ensure food safety and security of the more than 70,000 people supported by the installation but hundreds more at other installations.
Staff Sgt. Simon Mbugua, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Public Health Activity - Fort Bragg, Fort Lee Branch, said his troops also inspect government facilities at Fort Pickett, Richmond and Charlottesville. He said food inspection is only part of the Vet Corps' mission here.
"We have two missions -- animal care and food inspection," he said, "and we have two MOSs -- animal care specialist and food inspection specialist."
The animal care specialists here are charged with caring for military working dogs as well as the pets of military personnel.
Animal care and food inspection have a braided history. Veterinarians (and previously farriers) were hired as far back as the Revolutionary War era to care primarily for horses and other animals used to support operations.
Later, their duties were expanded to include food inspection because the Army also raised poultry and livestock to support its subsistence mission and the science of animal care was critical to disease prevention.
Mbugua, a food inspector who also supervises the animal care specialists, said the food inspection mission requires Soldiers to visit the various food-serving establishments here and elsewhere on a weekly basis.
"They inspect the food at all dining facilities, the shoppette, Burger King -- any place selling food on post," he said. "They check for food quality, where it originates, how it's stored and how it's handled."
Another set of Soldiers work exclusively out of the commissary performing the same tasks but it is much more voluminous, said Spc. Tyler L. Davis.
"There are daily inspections, and it's more in-depth," said the Dothan, Ala., native.
During the conduct of his duties inspecting food at installation facilities, 22-year-old Pfc. Markell McKee said his job is anything but routine.
"Some days there may be be one or two inspections, but some days you can have as many as seven inspections when we have to visit the dining facilities," said the Savannah, Ga., native.
McKee's tasks include checking expiration dates, approved source lists and for recalls at 54 facilities located on four installations.
Recalls are especially critical because products can make the list at any time and sometimes requires immediate action to ensure it does not reach customers or consumers.
"You don't want anyone to buy that product and get sick the next day," he said.
Mckee cited the recent recall of products belonging to a popular ice cream brand as an example of how critical his job is.
"Hundreds of people got sick from Listeria, and it happened because someone didn't act fast enough," he said.
Listeria and similar foodborne illnesses are capable of affecting military readiness on large scales, said McKee.
Mbugua, an inspector for 13 years, said aside from the level of responsibility his MOS carries, it does not enjoy much notoriety because many in the military community have never met a food inspector.
"They are surprised when they find out what we do," he said.
Or military members are oblivious to the process of food safety, said Davis.
"People think their food just shows up on the shelves (of the commissary)," he said, noting the many checkpoints food products endure before they are sold.
McKee agreed but also said the job's obscurity and the anonymity associated with it are alluring.
"It's an important job that no one knows about," he said, "but it's secret-agent-type stuff. We're in the shadows."
There are also other benefits to being a food inspector. The 29-year-old Davis said he enjoys the autonomy afforded Soldiers at his rank. Mbugua said he likes the fact the job can take him almost anywhere within the Department of Defense.
"The good thing about it is you can be assigned to any installation," said the Kenya native, once assigned to a naval facility in Seattle. "We can go to Air Force, Navy or Marine installations."
The Army is the Department of Defense's subject matter expert on food safety and provides guidance regarding issues that impact the health of DOD personnel.
There are roughly 940 enlisted food inspection specialists on active duty, and there are 2,600 Soldiers in the Veterinary Corps career field, according to the Army Medical Department website.