HONOLULU -- Imagine you’re a U.S. Navy Sailor out to sea in 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command region. During deployment, you’re enjoying lunch in the galley with your shipmates. As you look down at your food, you appreciate the fact that you have fresh lettuce and tomatoes on your hamburger.
The taste reminds you of home and being back in America. You feel good knowing that you have food that makes you feel recharged and able to do the mission.
However, what you don’t realize is that when your ship resupplied at sea, a U.S. Army veterinary food inspection specialist evaluated all of the food you and your shipmates consume to keep you safe from foodborne illnesses and other dangers.
Established as a Memorandum of Agreement with the Military Sealift Command, the U.S. Army Public Health Command's Ship Rider program deploys an Army sergeant or staff sergeant veterinary food inspection specialist to select MSC Combat Logistics Force ships to inspect food shipments during deployments and exercises.
During these operations, Soldiers are assigned to a ship for five to six months at a time, living and working side by side with Sailors, usually as the only Army member aboard a vessel.
The MOA requires the Army veterinary food inspectors conduct food safety, food defense and quality assurance inspections as their primary job functions while aboard.
“They provide the Navy critical support by inspecting all of our food provisions, whether it’s fruits and vegetables, frozen foods, or canned goods,” explained Senior Chief Petty Officer Edgardo Cruz, senior enlisted leader and assistant logistics force officer for MSC Far East. “They are also responsible to inspect items that are coming within expiration or have had a storage issue - ultimately they determine if food is safe for consumption.”
These inspections are critical to the Navy’s mission readiness.
“The veterinary food inspectors provide an important service, which is ensuring Sailors and Marines don’t get sick from the food they are eating. Food poisoning can greatly reduce mission capabilities on a ship,” said Cruz.
For Sgt. Anthony Rodriguez, a veterinary food inspection specialist from Public Health Activity-Guam who recently participated in the Ship Rider program aboard the USNS Amelia Earhart, the ability to keep others safe was his top priority.
“People don’t often think about preventive medicine and the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep others from getting sick,” said Rodriguez. “There are a lot of ways that food can make people sick, nauseated, or even bedridden. So, my job was really important since I checked all of the food before it was brought onto our ship and distributed to other vessels where it would be consumed by military personnel.”
One of the primary responsibilities of a food inspector’s mission is to conduct a receipt inspection of delivered goods before they are loaded onto a ship. This often takes place during product delivery that occurs directly on the pier.
In addition to reviewing the quality of food during a receipt inspection, food inspectors also conduct surveillance inspections to see if there are any signs of product tampering.
“During receipt inspections I’m also doing food defense checks, especially when we are in a foreign country,” explained Rodriguez. “So even before I begin inspecting the food, I would search around the delivery truck to make sure that there were no signs that somebody may have tampered with the truck, containers, or food.”
For Sgt. Shauna Bihlmaier, a veterinary food inspection specialist from PHA-G who recently participated in the Ship Rider program aboard the USNS Wally Schirra, the food defense mission was a critical part of her responsibilities during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think people realized how important our job was until the pandemic happened,” said Bihlmaier. “During any type of event like a pandemic, food can be very vulnerable, especially if people want to harm others, like military members. My job was to make sure we were catching those things to potentially save lives.”
If there are no signs of tampering, food inspectors review the quality of products, the storage temperature and sanitation of delivery trucks, and paperwork to determine if the food is okay to bring aboard a vessel.
“We use specific grades and standards that explain everything that you need to know about food,” said Bihlmaier. “So, I would definitely refer to those when I was inspecting products. Another thing that I would look at was the contract. Sometimes, there would be specific terms within the contract that would determine if the food would be rejected or accepted.”
Rejecting and accepting food is an important task since it not only helps keep Sailors safe, but it also helps the Department of Defense save money.
“Our role in reviewing the food and contracts is really important because we help the government save money by making sure the DoD is getting what they paid for,” said Rodriguez.
To ensure food quality, inspectors routinely visit vendor warehouses to ensure proper food storage and sanitation at facilities. These types of inspections are important since they provide the Navy with extra time to work with vendors to find a solution.
“It is important for the Army vet inspectors to identify issues prior to a shipment arriving at the pier,” explained Cruz. “If an issue is identified at the warehouse, it can trigger an immediate reimbursement or a new order of food to replace the bad provisions that were found during the inspection.”
Being able to have quality food on time for delivery is a concern, since it can be weeks or months before a vessel resupplies.
Bihlmaier explained that fresh fruits and vegetables are often the products that could have quality issues.
“While we were in other countries I saw a lot of issues that I had never seen before with lettuce and other items, like peaches. Often, when I cut into these products I would have to reject them since they would be brown or withered in the middle,” said Bihlmaier.
In some instances, the food inspectors identified products that could be salvaged, but when products became a safety issue, the food was rejected.
“Since having fresh fruits and vegetables can make a huge difference in the quality of life and morale of Sailors and Marines, we had to do our best to make those calls,” explained Rodriguez.
For Bihlmaier, rejecting food shipments wasn’t always an easy task, but she knew it was her duty since it could mean the difference between Sailors getting sick or remaining mission ready.
“People would definitely get a little irritated when I would reject items like lettuce, but I knew I was doing the right thing,” said Bihlmaier. “I wasn’t going to accept bad food just because some people wanted some lettuce for their salad or hamburger. I thought their safety and health was more important.”
Bihlmaier and Rodriguez both encountered unusual situations due to COVID-19 while they worked.
“Once COVID-19 happened we weren’t allowed to leave the ship due to safety concerns,” explained Bihlmaier. “So we had to inspect the food aboard the vessel after it was already accepted.”
Not only did Rodriguez and Bihlmaier have to adjust their inspection processes to adapt to the evolving situation with COVID-19; their time aboard the vessels was extended by months, making both of their returns to Guam much more difficult.