Division recognized for keeping food safe and available during extraordinary times

by | Jan 7, 2021

Sometimes extraordinary actions are obvious – a passerby saving someone from a burning building or a stranger volunteering to donate a kidney to someone in need. The list of good deeds could be endless. However, sometimes you have to look a little deeper or have some inside knowledge to understand that what appears to be “ordinary people doing ordinary jobs” may really be much more.

That’s the case with the employees of the NCDA&CS Division of Meat and Poultry Inspection. Their work has been extraordinary in the months since the coronavirus pandemic jostled the food supply chain. Their combined effort to keep meat and poultry products available to consumers has also earned the entire division the NCDA&CS Excellence in Team Accomplishment award.

“I think they’ve done a phenomenal job to keep things moving forward and allowing the [meat and poultry] establishments to continue to operate – doing what needed to be done,” said Lisa Benton, a division employee who nominated the division for the award.

Benton’s job as an agriculture programs specialist involves many roles, and in her nearly 20 years at NCDA&CS she’s done even more jobs, including being an inspector. That’s given her a full understanding of what employees do to ensure food safety, and what’s really struck her is that all that work has continued even while employees were dealing with so many things related to the pandemic. Employees have had to deal with their children being home from school, their relatives being sick or quarantined and even their coworkers needing to miss shifts because of family needs such as sickness or quarantine.

When stay-home orders, closures and shutdowns began back in March of 2020, there was concern about how people would still get food – if supplies could keep up and shift as demand shifted from restaurants to grocery stores and people’s kitchens. The work of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division (MPID) ensured that plants in the state could continue getting meat and poultry out to consumers. While many of North Carolina’s largest meat and poultry facilities are inspected by USDA, there are dozens of other small facilities that depend on NCDA&CS inspections to keep their business going.

“It may not be clear to everyone that without our inspectors being on site each day, the plants are not allowed to operate,” explained division director Dr. Karen Beck.

MPID inspectors in the facilities work alongside plant employees, Benton pointed out. So in addition to their normal protective gear, workers have worn additional personal protective equipment (PPE), and they’ve been diligent in following even more safety protocols to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Getting PPE to the right places has been a team effort, including office staff, supervisors and inspectors. When masks were in short supply back in the spring, a couple of team members even made cloth masks for others who needed them.

When plants needed to extend hours to meet demand, inspectors from NCDA&CS were right there – working 10 to 12-hour shifts – to be sure those operations could continue properly. That has included weekends and holidays.

“Our people deserve recognition for what they’re doing. They’re working on the front lines along with plant workers,” Benton said. “We’re kind of the type of folks who do our job, but we’re not always in the forefront. Our people are very humble just doing their jobs every day and going home to their families. So they needed to be recognized for being on the front lines.”

Beck said it’s been a true team effort. Everyone from office workers to those visiting plants have made adjustments. Some have adjusted to working from home, while others have gone to work the way they always have but with extra precautions and extra hours. By doing so, they’ve kept farmers working, plants operating and food in the store and on the table Beck explained.

“This team award represents the spirit and determination displayed by this team . Each individual has a role in making this effort successful,” Beck said. “Grateful is a word that comes to mind – grateful for the dedication of the MPID team and grateful to see them recognized for all they do. Our folks work really hard, and they’re often behind the scenes. Most people don’t know the role they play in ensuring a safe food supply. It’s nice to see them recognized for the role they play every day.”

In the video above, Commissioner Steve Troxler presents the award to division director Dr. Karen Beck. The video was shared with all the division employees during a virtual award presentation.