Dr. Regina Tan says three words best describe her work at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service: “I save lives.” As Director of the Applied Epidemiology Division for FSIS’s Office of Public Health Science, Dr. Tan and her staff are responsible for detecting health hazards in food, like disease-causing bacteria, allergens, strange objects, or diseases humans can catch from animals.
“This job is very personal to me. I have a son who depends on me to make sure he is safe. I think of this work by putting the faces of my family to it,” Dr. Tan has said.
Dr. Tan oversees 14 people divided into three teams. Her surveillance team collects information from laboratory-confirmed data and from scientific sources, media and consumer complaints. The investigations team coordinates disease and establishment data to determine the exact food product that is making people sick. Her prevention and control team identifies vulnerabilities in the U.S. food system and takes measures to prevent further illnesses. Dr. Tan often works with others including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and state and local public health partners.
About a third of Dr. Tan’s work involves investigating foodborne illness outbreaks. Simply put, an outbreak happens when a group of people consume the same contaminated food and two or more of them come down with the same illness. FSIS usually becomes aware of an outbreak from the CDC, but the agency may also get tips from local, state or territorial public health partners, from consumers, other federal agencies or even news reports. Once an outbreak is identified, FSIS moves quickly to determine the product that is causing the outbreak and where it may have been distributed.
“We have to be thorough, and we have to be right. If we find the source of an illness sooner and faster, we can save lives,” Dr. Tan said. “For a mother who is tending to a child who has become ill from something he or she has eaten, we can’t say to her ‘we’ll get back to you once we figure out what is making your child sick.’ That mother expects us to work to find a cause immediately. We work hard and fast like someone’s life depends on us. Because it does.”
Faces of Food Safety is an initiative by FSIS to introduce Americans to the real people who work every day to keep the food in their own homes and yours safe. Click to read more about Dr. Tan and other Faces of Food Safety on FSIS’s website.