FORT SAM HOUSTON< Texas -- Army Veterinary Food Inspection Specialists or Military Occupational Specialty 68 Romeos, approve all vendors and inspect all food purchased by the Defense Department.

"Food Inspection Specialists touch more lives more frequently than any other part of the medical department," said Dr. John Deaton, deputy chief of the Department of Veterinary Science, U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School.

"Every time a fork goes in food, they have had a hand in making sure it is safe to eat.

"The two main missions of the 68 Romeo are to protect to health and welfare of the troops and to protect the financial interests of the government," Deaton said.

The Army Veterinary Food Inspection Specialist basic course is eight weeks long and consists of both hands-on and didactic training covering inspection of red meats, poultry, water foods, eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, Meals Ready to Eat and Heat and all other operational rations.

Students learn cleaning and sanitizing procedures, how to determine proper temperatures, characteristics of potentially hazardous foods, food sample management and laboratory submission.

They also sample a wide variety of foods as part of their training.

"If they don't know what right tastes like, how will they know if items are spoiled or contaminated," said instructor Staff Sgt. Tam Thai.

As a practical exercise, the students spend two days at the commissary putting their food defense and food safety skills to the test.

"Veterinary Food Inspection Specialists check for contractual compliance, to verify the vendor is providing what was stipulated in the contract," said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Moody, instructor and NCO in charge of the Veterinary Specialist Branch.

"They check the wholesomeness of the products and make sure the items have not been tempered with, checking for both intentional and non-intentional contamination."

Once students graduate, they go to duty sites around the world. Veterinary Food Inspection Specialists may be stationed at an Army garrison, on a Navy base, at an operational rations plant or they may be deployed.

Specialists stationed in garrison inspect all food that service members and their families come into contact with on post. They inspect all food and beverages at the commissary, Post Exchange, dining facilities, and at all Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities.

Food inspectors with more advanced training may participate in a ship-rider program, accompanying Sailors on a Navy ship.

Veterinary Food Inspection Specialists are also stationed at operational rations assembly plants.

"MRE's have about six layers of protection," said instructor Staff Sgt. Adrienne Harmon. "However, if there are any instants where that protection is compromised; that's when our 68 Romeos are the first line of defense."