Safety Squad

By Alex Siemiatkowski

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In summer 2015, a veterinary liaison officer for Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support received a call from a Subsistence branch office in California about cucumbers causing people to get sick.

Army. Maj. Kellie Triplett quickly queried the supply chain’s prime vendors and retail marketers, such as commissaries, posts and base exchanges, to see if they had the cucumbers contaminated with Salmonella.

“While collaborating with the California Department of Public Health, [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and state and local officials, our Food Safety Office discovered the need for the recall on the cucumbers and immediately initiated the ALFOODACT message,” Triplett said — referring to safety warnings DLA issues on food the agency provides.

Triplett and Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jacqueline Telesford, food safety officer for the Subsistence supply chain, quickly sent about 2,500 emails to Subsistence suppliers, prime vendors and the military services, notifying them of the recall.

“Knowing if there is a recall on a product can be important in ensuring it doesn’t reach customers and affect critical missions,” Triplett said.

Although veterinarians are usually associated with providing health care to animals, Army veterinarians are also responsible for food safety and security.

DLA Troop Support relies on Army veterinarians while providing $2.3 billion worth of food annually to the military and other customers around the world. The veterinarians help develop food safety policies and programs, in addition to communicating with the military services and partner agencies on issues that may affect food supplies.

In the 1890s, veterinarians were sought to serve in the military to inspect meat, poultry and dairy products destined for frontier posts. A strong academic background in microbiology, epidemiology, pathology and public health has always made veterinarians ideally suited for helping ensure the safety of food, according to the Army Veterinary Corps website.

Established in 1916, the Army Veterinary Corps is now composed of more than 800 veterinarians who support all branches of the military and work in deployed environments, aboard U.S. Navy vessels and at commercial facilities.

They inspect the Subsistence supply chain in the United States, supervising operational ration assembly plants, as well as supply and distribution points. They also approve safe food sources around the world.

The experience Army veterinarians bring to DLA is an integral part of the agency’s efforts to feed the warfighter, said Army Col. Brian Kim, veterinary advisor at DLA headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

“Many of our veterinarians bring experiences in managing regional- and theater-level food safety programs,” Kim said. “Bottom line, the vets have numerous capabilities which can be tapped to benefit the agency.”

Triplett is one of two Army veterinarians at DLA Troop Support in Philadelphia. She oversees ALFOODACT messages and recalls that may affect military service members and their families.

In addition to the FDA, she liaisons the U.S Department of Agriculture, Naval Supply Systems Command and U.S. Army Public Health Command. Relationships with these agencies enable DLA’s veterinarians to manage inspections of products, audit requests and certification of overseas shipments, as well as product recalls, she said.

Lt. Col. Michael Hansen, an Army veterinarian and chief of the Food Safety Office, is Triplett’s veterinarian counterpart at Troop Support.

“My role is to answer any food-safety quality assurance questions,” Hansen said. “In my role here, subjects have ranged from mold grown on pallets, to salmonella in peanuts and other products. It really does run the gamut.”

Hansen graduated from Iowa State University’s veterinary school in 2001 and initially went into private practice. He was commissioned as a captain in the Army Veterinary Corps in 2002. At his first duty station at Fort Riley, Kansas, he managed the veterinary clinic and conducted food audits.

He now also helps make sure operational rations meet military standards and have the correct labeling for packaging and inspections. Hansen travels often to provide technical advice at food-quality summits and helps with various product and vendor audits.

In one of his first trips with DLA, Hansen visited a water bottling plant that was producing water with too much non-disease-causing bacteria.

“A team of us went down there and spent two days at the plant, trouble-shooting potential sources of environmental contamination,” Hansen said. “We were able to identify some areas they could focus on and they adjusted their sanitation standard operating procedures. We haven’t had a problem since, and that has been a real win.”

The Subsistence Food Safety Office also comprises Army warrant officers and senior enlisted service members. They translate food safety language for customers and other Subsistence employees, said Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jemme Neal, Subsistence consumer safety officer.

“DLA performs quality and food defense audits on their vendors to ensure contractual compliance,” Neal said. “The U.S. Army Public Health [Command] performs audits of food facilities so that they can be listed as an approved source. Our office is able to clear up confusion between the two, ensure requirements are met for each and perform the steps necessary to ensure these audits are tasked appropriately.”

Army Veterinary Corps officers and warrant officers perform audits of facilities that are or will be approved sources of military food. They review items such as employee hygiene, facility sanitation, programs and procedures and laboratory sampling, Neal said.

“Once the facility is approved, the Department of Defense is assured that the plant has been thoroughly audited and the food is produced in a safe manner,” Neal said.

The Food Safety Office relies on the USDA and FDA to inspect items like meat, poultry and fish. However, it’s up to the veterinarians to ensure the safety of bottled water, sandwiches and prepared salads.

DLA also has veterinarians assigned to regional commands in Europe and the Pacific to support Subsistence customers around the globe.

Army Lt. Col. James Pratt, chief of food safety for DLA Troop Support Europe and Africa, helps navigate the rules in Europe for transporting products made by or from animals.

“We work with the regulatory agencies, both in the U.S. and the European Union, to make sure we are meeting the host nations’ tracking requirements for those [animal origin] imports,” Pratt said. “Since many foodborne illnesses have an animal origin, we receive extensive training in food safety and food production auditing.”

DLA veterinarians were called when defects were found in operational rations in Iraq. During an inspection, the veterinarians learned that the rations weren’t being stored correctly, Neal said.

“We found that most of them were unusable due to quality defects that could have been avoided,” Neal said.

The storage problem turned out to be theaterwide issue, prompting a change in the way units managed their food storage, which Neal said saved the government valuable resources.

The first Army Veterinary Corps soldiers worked in the field of equine surgery and medicine during World War I. As an Army marches on its stomach, DLA’s veterinarians now stand watch around the world to ensure warfighters have safe food to eat.