Ask an Expert Series
Topic: Food Safety
On August 16, 2017, Acctivate hosted a webinar with guest speaker, Eric Thompson, a 20+ year veteran of the USDA FSIS. Eric educated viewers on what investigators look for during a recall and how food & beverage distributors can proactively prepare. Eric joined us for an interview before the webinar to share a little bit about his personal life, career, and industry knowledge. He is an associate of HAACP Consulting Group (HCG) helping small and mid-sized food production and distribution companies to better comply and communicate with regulators. Eric’s experience, 20 years in food production and 20 years in the USDA, gives him a specialized knowledge of food safety, recall protocols, and prevention.
- USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)
- FSIS Compliance Program
- Enforcement Investigation & Analysis Officer (EIAO)
- Supervisory EIAO
- Deputy District Manager, Springdale, AZ District Office
- Participated in development of NPIS (New Poultry Inspection System) & Shiga Toxin-Producing Escherichia Coli (STEC)
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Eric became familiar with the farm life early-on, spending every summer at his grandfather’s 700-acre ranch, Edge, near Bryan, Texas. Eric attended Rice University in pursuit of an aeronautical engineering degree with hopes of becoming a pilot for the U.S. Navy. He was accepted to the Navy, but upon his initial physical exam learned he had no depth perception – piloting would not be his future. Eric continued on to graduate from Rice and then returned to his grandfather’s ranch.
He needed some permanent help, so I moved up there to help him and ended up spending close to 20 years there raising farm animals and food products,” Eric said.
From the ranch, he continued forward in the food production industry leading him to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), where he spent the next 20 years of his career until his recent retirement.
What have you learned about the industry throughout the years?
The key to most industries is communication, especially if you’re working for the government. So many times, people are afraid to speak to their regulators.I mean, if the U.S. industry doesn’t produce safe food, people will run you out of business and, as a regulator, if your interest is in safe food, but you aren’t trying for an open line of communication and the building of better relationships then you’re not doing your job. When people have the same goals yet they’re still diametrically opposed in their means and methods, it’s because there is a lack of communication.”
Throughout your career, what position did you enjoy the most?
My favorite thing about anything is getting the opportunity to learn something. And my favorite job, truly, was as a line inspector in Palestine, Texas, where we did antemortem and postmortem on about 1,000 animals a day. Seeing the mature animals and all of the diseases they had, it was like, how in the world does a cow get cirrhosis of the liver, you know? How do they get smokers’ disease? How do they get all that kind of stuff? I was lucky to have a veterinarian there who took pride in his work and explained it all to me.”
What do you do as a HAACP Consultant?
Because my background is so much in the industry and in the agency, I know the agency’s terms and lingo and I know the industry’s terms and lingo. I can help both sides interpret what the other means, so to speak. I can guide people on how to respond to questions in a nonthreatening, professional manner and how to control their emotions in oral and written responses.
A lot of people, naturally, are proud of their businesses, and they take it personal when somebody threatens their business. The agency takes it personal, too, when somebody threatens them. And so, both sides draw up and neither one of them wants to give, and somebody has to break that impasse. Let the agency strike a trump card because they can lay a tag on the business and shut it down.”
How many recalls have you been involved in?
What part of the industry appears to be less prepared in the face of a recall?
Well, the big guys are more prepared, the Tysons and the IVPs, places like that – they’ve got these kinds of electronic record keeping systems in place. If they have an E. Coli positive product, they can easily show the only liable product needing to be recalled and that’s it.
But you’ve got a small guy who has to look through all of his paperwork by hand, and then separate it out by hand, and he’s got, oh say… Just a half hour to do so and they just can’t. When they can’t, they just end up having to recall everything produced in the last year or two.”
Do you think smaller food and beverage companies educating and preparing themselves before encountering a recall will make a difference?
Absolutely. I don’t know of a single plant that has had multiple recalls in a year. Generally, you have a recall and then it may never happen again. You may only have the one recall in your entire career at the plant. You may have, maybe one a year, if you are very unlucky.
But my point is, you don’t get a lot of practice before you find yourself in a recall situation. So all of a sudden, you start getting these calls from the FDA or the USDA saying, ‘“Greetings, we’ve got this information and we want to know if you plan to recall this product that we’ve determined to be adulterated in commerce.’” You’re sitting there going, ‘“Holy cow, I didn’t see this coming. What do I do next?’” and you’ll find yourself totally flabbergasted and unprepared.”
What is the primary thing a company has to do during a recall?
The main thing is what records do they need to find; how can they quickly get their hands on them in a very short order – because FSIS expects an answer to their request in no longer than an hour and half if they have really convincing evidence. In some circumstances, the FSIS will extend the search to one day, but that’s still not a lot of time to search through one or two years’ worth of production records to prove to FSIS why they should change their mind on the recall.