Faces of Food Safety: Dr. Regina L. Tan
Dr. Regina Tan said there are three words that best describe her work at the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). "I save lives." Those small words hold great promise, but they also carry an enormous responsibility - for Tan and FSIS.
Tan is Director of the Applied Epidemiology Division for FSIS' Office of Public Health Science. Her office is responsible for detecting health hazards and clusters of disease associated with FSIS-regulated products. These can be disease-causing bacteria, food allergens, foreign objects found in products or diseases transmitted from animals to humans through food. She oversees three teams: surveillance, investigations and prevention and control. Her surveillance team works with laboratory-confirmed data as well as with information from scientific sources, media or consumer complaints. The investigations team coordinates disease and establishment data to determine the exact FSIS-regulated product that is causing illness. Her prevention and control team identifies vulnerabilities in the U.S. food system and makes sure that the division communicates these findings so that measures can be developed that prevent further illnesses. Tan's work is often in conjunction with other public health partners including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration, along with state and local public health partners. Tan oversees a staff of 14 employees.
The work of Tan's office must be swift and thorough
When Tan's office is called upon, you know it has the potential of being a life-and-death situation; lives have been altered by an illness. "We have to be thorough, and we have to be right. If we find the source of an illness sooner and faster, we can save lives," she said. "For a mother who is tending to a child who has become ill from something he or she has eaten, we can't say to her 'we'll get back to you once we figure out what is making your child sick.' That mother expects us to work to find a cause immediately. We work hard and fast like someone's life depends on us. Because it does."
Anatomy of an outbreak
About a third of Tan's work involves investigating outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Simply put, an outbreak of foodborne illness happens when a group of people consume the same contaminated food and two or more of them come down with the same illness. FSIS can become aware of an outbreak cluster from a number of sources - primarily from the CDC. The agency may also learn of an outbreak from local, state or territorial public health partners, from a consumer tip, other federal agencies or even news reports. Once an outbreak has been identified, FSIS moves quickly to determine the source of the product that is causing the outbreak, where it may have been distributed and commonalities in the supplier. This task rests within Tan's purview.
|"We have to be thorough, and we have to be right. If we find the source of an illness sooner and faster, we can save lives."
Dr. Regina L. Tan
Tan brings a wealth of experience to FSIS
Tan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1995 from the University of Maryland, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999 and a Master of Science degree in Public Health Molecular Epidemiology in 2000. She holds an Indiana State Veterinary Medical License. She has also been a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine since 2004.
She began her career with the federal government in 2000 as a Commissioned Corps Officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, where she was assigned to the CDC, first as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer and then as a Preventive Medicine Fellow. She first worked at FSIS in 2003, where she served for 2 years as a Veterinary Epidemiologist, managing the Consumer Monitoring System team and hurricane response components.
Tan rejoined CDC in 2005 to work as a liaison with the Public Health Service's Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center for a year, followed by a stint in the private sector working as the Director for the Biosecurity Research and Development Program with the MITRE Corporation. She returned to FSIS in 2010, where she said she is proud of the work she and her staff performs.
She understands the importance of her work
There is not a day that goes by that Tan doesn't stop to think about the importance of her work. "This job is very personal to me. I have a son who depends on me to make sure he is safe. I think of this work by putting the faces of my family to it," Tan explained. "The work we do can sometimes feels like we are putting together complex puzzle pieces. It doesn't matter how long it takes. We will work as hard as we can to put together all of the pieces to make sure families are safe. And when we learn there is a problem, such as a foodborne illness, we will get out the word as fast as we can because we want the American public to know that we are working on whatever the problem is on their behalf."