Keeping N.C. Food Safe and Delicious

by | Dec 28, 2022

We Are Agriculture is a year-long series that will highlight the hard-work done by employees across the Department of Agriculture. Joan Sims, Compliance and Response Manager with our Food & Drug Protection Division, is one of those employees. Stay tuned each Wednesday here on the blog or any of our social media accounts and join us in honoring those who continue to drive our state’s agriculture industry forward each day!

Agriculture is not only about the food being grown for your table, but also the safety of that food in stores and homes. Joan Sims, Compliance and Response Manager with our Food & Drug Protection Division, did not grow up in agriculture but fell into the career during her time in college.

Being born and raised in North Raleigh, Joan was very much a city girl growing up. All of that changed however when she attended college at N.C. State University and fell in love with agriculture. “Growing up, when mom asked us to get milk we would go to the grocery store not the backyard,” she said, “but when I discovered the love of agriculture in college, specifically because of the science behind food from field to fork, I fell into a career that I never knew I needed.” Joan obtained a Food Science degree from N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences before obtaining a job in the food industry, where she stayed many years before coming to the department. “Working in the industry prior to the department gave me a true appreciation for Quality Control and how it relates to agriculture,” she said. “I truly believe it helped prepare me for my current position.”

As Compliance and Response Manager, a typical day for Joan means responding to whatever tasks, complaints or projects are at hand. “There really is no typical day for me because we are always getting calls, conducting surveys or responding to complaints,” she said. In her job, Joan is responsible for education and outreach, compliance to and enforcement of food safety rules, selecting and submitting FDA contract inspections, managing recalls and effectiveness checks and responding, with the help of our state’s Rapid Response Team (RRT), to food safety issues. “Our job is to help our North Carolina industries and citizens, and, as Commissioner Troxler says, ‘educate before you regulate,'” Joan said.

One of the many responsibilities of Joan and her team is to conduct weekly surveys of food in the marketplace. “Our inspection teams pulls items from the current store shelves and test those products in our laboratory,” Joan said. “Most of the time these samples come back fine and within compliance of food safety rules. However, when they do not, we respond to those issues and ensure the product is removed from the shelves.” This year alone, they have processed over 1,000 samples!

Another important job of Joan and her team is to respond to food safety questions and complaints. “We get a lot of calls about expiration dates, which we normally follow up on because if those are being neglected in the store, it often contributes to a wider neglect in other areas,” Joan said, “but we also respond to food safety alerts and illnesses that lead to recall of product.” In fact, one of the projects Joan is most proud to have been a part of was a recall and food safety illness response. “A few years ago there was a man claiming to be selling gluten free bread that was making individuals with Celiac disease sick,” she said. “Turns out, the bread he was selling was actually filled with gluten. I was very proud of how our team responded to that incident, gathered all the necessary paperwork to charge him and get him off the streets and punished for the incident.” As a member of the state’s Rapid Response Team, Joan has connections to members of the health department, academics and other industry individuals to help when these types of issues arise.

Joan and her coworker Daniel Pennell, with the IT group in emergency management, also built the Food Firms Database, which has been used for many years to train compliance officers and other members of the Food and Drug Protection Division. Although this system has evolved over time to fit the departments needs for documenting inspections, investigations, and events relating to NC firms, the system has been featured in national conferences and shared with other states as a valuable tool in the Rapid Response community.

After sixteen years, Joan’s passion and love for the job continues to grow, especially because of the people that she works with. “I love each member of the Food and Drug Protection Division team because we all work together to get the job done and we rely on one another,” she said. “Daniel and Anita are amazing leaders that help us all work together and support one another as we determine the best path of response for each incident that we face.”

When she is not working, Joan enjoys fostering animals from local rescue groups until they find their forever homes, volunteering with her church and spending time with her family, especially her five grandchildren. Join us in thanking Joan for all of her hard work ensuring that the food we eat is safe for consumption!