Putting safety first

by Bernard Shire
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Al Almanza  
Alfred Almanza is an advocate for food safety at the USDA while striving to understand processors' challenges. 
 
Thirty-eight years ago, in May 1978, Alfred V. Almanza began working for the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) as a meat inspector in a small slaughter plant in Dalhart, Texas. In federal government language, he was a GS-5, about as low as you can be in the federal workforce. Today, Almanza is USDA’s deputy under secretary for food safety, and acting administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

He was appointed deputy under secretary for food safety by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a little over a year ago, after having served as administrator of FSIS since June 2007. As a career FSIS employee, not a political appointee, he will likely go back to leading the meat and poultry inspection agency as administrator when the next administration takes office.

During his career with FSIS, Almanza moved up quickly from that entry-level position, serving as a labor management specialist, district manager of the FSIS Dallas District Office, and then on to administrator.

In a period of time where there have been huge and continuing changes in food safety for the meat and poultry industry, Almanza has played a major leadership role in these changes. While he’s been administrator, he’s focused on modernizing inspection and finding ways to make FSIS more efficient and effective. He spearheaded the development of the New Poultry Inspection System, which refocuses inspection to reduce pathogen levels in poultry slaughter plants, which the agency hopes will lower illnesses from Salmonella and Campylobacter. Regulatory strategies now employed against E. coli O157:H7 have significantly lowered illnesses from the pathogen. Under Almanza’s leadership, FSIS put into effect a zero-tolerance policy against six additional strains of E. coli that cause illnesses in people. He also led the development of new Salmonella and Campylobacter performance standards, which make slaughter establishments responsible for reducing these pathogens in young chicken and turkey.

 Al Almanza
Almanza was recently honored by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), with the prestigious Richard E. Lyng Award (pictured with NAMI Chairman, Brian Coelho). 
 

Almanza led the effort at FSIS to develop its Public Health Inspection System (PHIS), an up-to-date system for data collection and access about food safety violations and public health trends going on at the more than 6,000 federally-inspected plants across the US. Since 2011, PHIS has streamlined data collection and access for the agency.

He also determined FSIS could streamline its resources by reducing district offices from 15 to 10, and increase efficiency by more evenly distributing the circuits, establishments and FSIS employees that each district office oversees. He reorganized the agency’s headquarter offices and staff. Almanza also led the development of the FSIS 2011-2016 Strategic Plan and has overall supervision of the more than 7,000 FSIS field employees.

Almanza was recently honored by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), receiving the prestigious Richard E. Lyng Award recognizing him for his support and commitment to the American meat and poultry industry. The presentation was made in late September at NAMI’s Annual Meeting and Outlook Conference in Washington, DC.

Almanza answers


MEAT+POULTRY recently interviewed Almanza about issues important to the meat and poultry industry.

MEAT+POULTRY:
What are some of the biggest regulatory issues facing meat and poultry processors right now?

ALMANZA: They include plant process control performance monitoring, validation and verification activities to fight pathogens; consumer complaints about problems with foreign materials; new rulemaking for Salmonella, and results from the Salmonella Action Plan; antibiotic resistance; and the control of Listeria monocytogenes in retail delicatessens.

M+P: There seems to be increasing emphasis at the agency in controlling Salmonella in meat and poultry.

AA: Well, the development of new Campylobacter and Salmonella performance standards are holding poultry slaughter establishments accountable for reducing these pathogens in young chickens and turkeys. Three years ago, FSIS released the Salmonella Action Plan, which outlines our key steps toward reducing the incidence of contamination. The new standards were developed also in response to great changes in the poultry industry, in the move toward value-added poultry products, and away from whole birds, which used to be the bulk of products in the poultry industry, but are no more. We realize the industry has changed greatly. Now, ground turkey and chicken, as well as chicken and turkey parts are the bulk of the market, and that’s what we’re aiming to focus on to reduce the two pathogens.

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