Pfc. Lexi Celso, left, and Pfc. Alexandria Daversa, veterinary food inspection specialists assigned to the Fort Campbell Branch of the U.S. Army Public Health-Fort Knox, inspect packaged food Sept. 14 at the Commissary. Veterinary food inspection specialists are trained on the standards of food quality and what to look for in the facilities they inspect.
Pfc. Lexi Celso, left, and Pfc. Alexandria Daversa, veterinary food inspection specialists assigned to the Fort Campbell Branch of the U.S. Army Public Health-Fort Knox, inspect packaged food Sept. 14 at the Commissary. Veterinary food inspection specialists are trained on the standards of food quality and what to look for in the facilities they inspect. (Photo Credit: Sirena Clark) VIEW ORIGINAL

Fort Campbell residents have little to worry about when it comes to food safety because of the team of veterinary food inspection specialists assigned to the Fort Campbell Branch of U.S. Army Public Health Activity-Fort Knox, who protect the Force and Families by ensuring all on-post food and grocery facilities are compliant with food safety regulations.

When the words “foodborne illness” show up in the news, most of the time it’s related to a food recall, such as vegetables contaminated by E. coli, meat that has tested positive for salmonella, or canned foods that have caused botulism. The truth, however, is foodborne illnesses can take place anywhere – at a restaurant, a friend’s backyard barbecue, a catered event and even in the comfort of our own kitchens.

September is National Food Safety Education Month, and a few of Fort Campbell’s veterinary food inspection specialists shared some insight into their important work of which most people are unaware.

Laborious task

Food safety is a broad term that encompasses a variety of processes, including food preparation, packaging, storage and shelf life. Making certain that food is safe for consumption is the mission of the Soldiers assigned to the Fort Campbell Branch, said Staff Sgt. Abigail Lopez, U.S. Army Food Inspector noncommissioned officer, Fort Campbell Branch of U.S. Army Public Health Activity-Fort Knox.

“The veterinary food inspector specialist plays a big role in protecting our force as well as Families,” Lopez said.

The unit’s mission statement is to take care of people across the spectrum of the Department of Defense operations through sustained force health protection, veterinary health service support and innovative research to enable readiness and conserve the fighting strength while supporting healthy Families, animals and environments, she said.

To accomplish their mission the small unit routinely inspects more than 100 Fort Campbell facilities.

Veterinary Good Inspection Specialist Pvt. 2 Johnathan Fuselier, said most people never stop to consider just how many hands food passes through before it gets to someone’s home. At each stop food is at risk of becoming contaminated.

“People don’t really understand how many people are able to access the food you ingest every day,” Fuselier said. “It may go from a farm to a slaughterhouse, then it’s going to a butcher to get cut up and then to a manufacturer and then a packaging plant. And only then does it come to a place like the Commissary where they take the meat out of the packages and cut it to their prime cuts and then they repackage it and put it on the shelf. That’s at least a dozen people who’ve touched it before you get your hands on it.”

At any point, if food storage has been compromised before or after it arrives at Fort Campbell it will not make it to the shelves because of the numerous checks items must pass to be considered safe to eat.

Private First Class Alexandria Daversa, veterinary food inspection specialist, said this process applies to items people might not even think much about like cooked rice used by the Commissary’s sushi bar.

“The pH has to be perfect for rice,” Daversa said.

If sushi rice is too acidic it isn’t safe to eat, she said, and if the reverse is true it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Cooked rice that is used to make sushi must be maintained within the range of a 4.1-4.6 pH, or be discarded.

This is just one of many tests performed on different food products throughout the installation that must be completed on a bi-weekly or tri-weekly basis, Fuselier said.

“We do weekly swabs twice a week,” he said. “We’re always testing for cross-contamination, we’re always observing and not just in the Commissary but all across the installation. We want to see the process of how people handle food and to make sure a worker is wearing gloves or they’re not cutting fruits and vegetables with the same knife that they just got done cutting raw chicken with.”

Food safety includes what temperature a food is stored at and whether the packaging is intact, said Pfc. Lexi Celso, veterinary food inspection specialist.

“Some things we look at are packaging,” Celso said. “We want to make sure it’s not ripped or torn, also you want to make sure the temperature is good because if not the food can become contaminated.”

Hazard analysis and critical control points

Another important part of the veterinary food inspection specialist’s job is identifying where contamination is most likely to happen and how to limit the risk. This is where hazard analysis and critical control points, or HACCP, comes into play, Fuselier said.

“Critical control points are points where in the process of making that product, it could be damaged or make someone sick,” he said.

It is the veterinary food inspection specialist’s job to prevent, eliminate or reduce the risk of foodborne illness at identifiable points. This could be on the cutting board, in the packaging or in the storage of food and inspectors look for processes such as heating and chilling food, testing for contaminants and bacteria.

“We swab for botulism, which you mainly see in canned meats and vegetables, salmonella, listeria and E. coli which is in vegetables,” Fuselier said. “There are hundreds of bacteria but there are only a few that we look out for because they’re more prominent and they’re easy to infect others.”

The ‘kill-step’

Aside from checking food before it reaches the consumer and swabbing areas to check for cross-contamination, a large part of the task involves observing workers to make sure they are complying with food safety regulations.

Knowing and implementing regulations can save someone the grief of a bout with food poisoning, Daversa said, but also can avoid misunderstandings for patrons who may suspect a worker has broken a rule. When to wear gloves while prepping food is a big one.

“If there’s an additional kill-step involved, workers don’t have to wear gloves in food preparation because for example, if they’re making a pizza, they’re going to put it in the oven,” Daversa said. “And the heat is going to kill off the bacteria. It’s important to know regulations for this reason.”

A “kill-step” is defined in food safety as a point in which harmful bacteria or pathogens are eradicated. This can take place through freezing, cooking, pasteurization or through the use of chemicals.