Faces of Food Safety: Dr. Nancy Atkins
Although the end of Dr. Nancy Atkins' career with the Food Safety and Inspection Service is closer in sight than the beginning of it, she says she still feels the same excitement today as she did when she started the job. And while the lure of retirement to Louisiana to land she owns there dangles over her like a tasty treat, it is her love for the agency that keeps her holding on. "I have the best job in the agency," she said. "I count myself very fortunate."
And it is FSIS that has been fortunate to have Atkins. Atkins is a District Veterinary Medical Specialist (DVMS). In this position, she spends her workday making sure that animals are handled and slaughtered in a humane way and making sure the facilities where she works adheres to Federal Law.
Atkins doesn't mince words. Her job is tough — but rewarding
While Atkins knows her work matters, she is the first to tell you that her job is not easy. "The hours are long and the travel is hard." She is on the road 75 to 85 percent of the time. Her day begins at 4:30 a.m., and after a quick workout, she's on the road or in the air. She covers 10 states, logging frequent miles to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. The travel, she said, is both a matter of the job and a matter of the heart because she loves what she does.
She always knew she wanted to be a veterinarian.
Long before Atkins knew what the word veterinarian meant, she wanted to work with animals, she said. While earning a degree in anthropology at Mississippi State University, she learned that the school soon would offer a degree in veterinary medicine, so she just waited for the program to come. "I was just marking time until the vet school came. I just waited."
Her waiting paid off, and in 1982, she earned her degree and started work, tending mostly to small animals. A decade later, she came to FSIS, where she started work in Idaho as a Veterinary Medical Officer (VMO). After a 2-year stint there, she moved to Pennsylvania as a relief VMO, working for other veterinarians on leave. Shortly after, she accepted a supervisory position. In 2002, she was selected as a District Veterinary Medical Specialist (DVMS) for the Denver district, where she remains today.
Treating animals with respect
"Dr. Atkins is a humane handling specialist in her role as a DVMS," said Dr. David Thompson, Atkins' colleague. "It is federal law that plants treat animals in a humane manner and her current position requires her to verify that the plants she services are doing just that and using a step-by-step approach
"Be vigilant and diligent. Animals are giving up their lives for us and they should be treated with the greatest respect and kindness under these circumstances."
Dr. Nancy Atkins
so that all aspects of the process have the animal's welfare in mind. Her job is to make sure animals are handled with minimal excitement and without pain or injury." It is her job to observe plant employees while they are moving and handling the animals — and determine if the methods comply with federal law. "We are legally, morally and ethically obliged to handle animals as humanely as possible," she said of her important job.
When it comes to making sure animals are handled and slaughtered in a humane way, Atkins is highly regarded among her peers; they can depend on and learn from her. "They are on the front lines and their work is important," she said. Her view on the welfare of animals is more than a 9 to 5 job or a regulatory citation or agency directive; it comes from a deep place in her heart. Her personal inspiration comes from Dr. Temple Grandin, an outspoken advocate against the torture of animals. Grandin's advocacy helped shape animal welfare. And so has Atkins' advocacy at FSIS. If there is any lesson that she can pass along to others following in her footsteps, it is "to handle animals with care."
Looking forward to retirement
And while Atkins enjoys her job and is confident that plants around the country have made great strides in properly handling livestock, she said she is looking forward to the time when she can focus her attention on her own life. She said she plans to retire in the coming years. For those coming after her, she said she would tell them the same thing that she lives by: "Be vigilant and diligent. Animals are giving up their lives for us and they should be treated with the greatest respect and kindness under these circumstances."
Note: for more information about FSIS' commitment to humane handling processes and policies, visit www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Key_Facts_Humane_Slaughter/index.asp.