Faces of Food Safety: Import Inspector Mark Underberg
Integrity. It is a word to live by. And Mark Underberg, an import inspector with the Import Inspection Division in the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) Office of International Affairs, takes it seriously.
"Your decisions have to be fair and consistent," he says. "And once you have a solid decision, you stand by it." It is this same integrity that has driven Underberg throughout his life.
Underberg first began his career with FSIS in 1996 as a poultry line inspector in Indiana and then later worked as a processing inspector in Connecticut. In 2003, he returned to his home near Niagara Falls, N.Y., to serve as an import inspector, a job he maintains now. As an import inspector, Underberg is now responsible for making sure that products imported from other countries are as safe as those produced domestically.
In all his posts, Underberg has been focused on making sure that his work—ensuring that the food supply is safe—is done to the best of his ability.
A dedicated public servant, Underberg recognizes that there are many ways to contribute. "One of my biggest regrets is that I was never in the Armed Services," he said. "However, here at FSIS, I get to protect the public in a different way."
Inspectors comprise the largest category of employees in FSIS; there are currently about 8,000 individuals nationwide who perform inspection activities, including daily inspection at plants and import establishments, in-depth evaluations, audits, and assessments. Inspectors form the heart of the agency—performing the tasks that keep the public safe, gathering the data to inform our new understanding of the risks in the food safety system and implementing the new knowledge and science that the agency develops. It is a job that never stops and always changes.
|"My philosophy on the job is to measure all my decisions against the big picture: those who eat the product that we inspect—our families and neighbors. I always try to do whatever it is that would keep my girls safe."
"The strength of FSIS is that we, as an agency, are always trying to improve," explained Underberg. "Here at FSIS, I have learned that it takes hard work, dedication and knowledge to keep the public safe."
A Big Job
Underberg's job is not easy. Just this last year, 290 million pounds of FSIS-regulated product were presented for inspection at his Niagara Falls point of entry.
"Inspectors in import houses work hard to be on the same page so that each import house applies the requirements uniformly across the board," said Underberg. "That way, everyone who ships regulated product in the United States recognizes that they have to meet the same requirements no matter which point of entry they go through—eliminating the idea that one import inspection point is easier to pass through than another."
"I know that I am making a difference in my job. We get to see that difference in real time—as we stop product that does not meet our requirements from entering our country and being served to the American public," said Underberg. "And I know that when I stamp that form to indicate that I have inspected a product and approved it, my job has to be done right. That is important. Those products will be consumed by the public."
The Importance of Data and Communication
The work done by Underberg and his colleagues is critical on several levels. Not only does it help meet FSIS' goals of maximizing domestic and international compliance with food safety policies and directly protecting consumers on a daily basis, it also provides key data that helps inform new policies that advance our goal of being more food safe and making sure FSIS is protecting consumers in a changing world.
One of FSIS' biggest responsibilities and strengths is communication. It is critical that we get the information from the front line to those who are responsible for making policy. "This data impacts all that we do—from regulatory actions to new policies," said Underberg. "I am the first person in line—the hands-on person when it comes to ensuring the safety of the food supply. The data and samples that I collect need to be accurate and reliable."
Why it all Matters
"It is funny to hear about what I do from the perspective of my 7-year-old daughter. 'Daddy is going to protect people,' she often says," said Underberg. "My philosophy on the job is to measure all my decisions against the big picture: those who eat the product that we inspect—our families and neighbors. I always try to do whatever it is that would keep my girls safe."