Faces of Food Safety: Scott Seys
Finishing high school, Scott Seys envisioned becoming a math instructor like his grandfather. But early in college, he discovered an interest in health care and so his journey began on a pre-medicine track that included a major in biology.
While a sophomore at Minnesota State University, Mankato, a bacterial meningitis outbreak struck the college community. He watched as epidemiologists and other public health professionals worked with local leaders to investigate the outbreak, responded to questions from a fearful community and staged mass vaccination clinics. "I knew at this point that I wanted to be an epidemiologist and work with infectious diseases," recalled Seys. "I wanted to be involved in solving scientific problems that directly impacted public health."
Fulfilling his dream, today Seys works as an Epidemiologist at the national level with the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) Office of Policy and Program Development (OPPD). In OPPD, he helps to develop food safety policy and guidance published in directives and notices to reduce foodborne illnesses and hazards. "I was excited to take the position in OPPD to explore how to more broadly prevent illnesses using more widespread interventions and policy," said Seys.
Preventing foodborne illness and protecting public health
"I love being an epidemiologist and am grateful for the education I received," said Seys. "My college professors emphasized the need to critique data, assumptions, methodology and results. At FSIS, scientific data are critical in meeting FSIS' strategic goals to prevent foodborne illness and protect the public's health—FSIS' primary purpose. It's crucial that we use, interpret and even question our data continually." He is thankful to have access to valuable FSIS data, such as the demographic and testing information for establishments as well as other data that are generated in the field and FSIS laboratories from the Public Health Information System (PHIS), to respond to questions from the field using FSIS' query system, askFSIS.
Working with other FSIS staff members, Seys provides critical scientific and technical assistance to field inspection personnel and other field investigation staff through askFSIS, principally concerning allergens, test and hold policies, ready-to-eat (RTE) products and Listeria monocytogenes (Lm). Seys also began developing outreach materials and educational supplements regarding Lm at retail.
A RTE workgroup was developed with members from FSIS' Office of Public Health Science (OPHS) (Philip Bronstein), Office of Data Integration and Food Protection (ODIFP) (Steve Mamber) and OPPD (Kristi Barlow) to help support the mission of FSIS by developing initiatives that improve the FSIS verification sampling programs for Lm and Salmonella in RTE products regulated by FSIS. The workgroup members pursue leadership objectives on RTE sampling issues, answer questions from the field on RTE sampling, provide feedback on data analysis for the program and make recommendations for sampling actions.
"I'm very interested in the data and trends that underlie decisions and policies," said Seys. Just recently, he led a workgroup that was formed because of an increase in the number of recalls of FSIS-regulated
products containing undeclared allergens. This workgroup analyzed PHIS data and trends regarding the number of allergen-related recalls and applied the scientific findings to develop a verification task that is now being carried out in the field. As a result, a notice was issued to give instructions to inspection program personnel (IPP) to verify that establishments were accurately labeling the eight most common food allergens—wheat, crustacean shellfish, eggs, fish, peanuts, milk, tree nuts and soybeans.
Presently, he is working with ODIFP to develop a plan to analyze PHIS allergen-related questions tied to the notice to find out how well establishments are doing to make sure that product labeling matches the product formulation for products containing allergens.
Seys spent 5 years in various roles ranging from Lead Public Health and Epidemiology Liaison in OPHS to Deputy Director for the Applied Epidemiology Division. Then in 2010, he and his OPHS Foodborne Illness Investigation Team investigated illnesses that were linked to salami products with pepper added after cooking. "This investigation made an impact on RTE foods policy, resulting in an FSIS notice which led to changes at establishments," said Seys. "Today, working with policy, I am now answering questions arising from that notice to ensure that "best practices" are being implemented. This is one example of how I have been able to watch firsthand as data and science impact FSIS policy."
Building camaraderie and collaboration toward a common goal
Seys enjoys collaborating and working with other federal, state and local agencies and national organizations. His camaraderie has led to numerous partnerships which have resulted in important outcomes related to public health issues.
During 2007-2008, Seys helped to produce a new FSIS directive that directly impacted customer service and FSIS' reputation for investigations. "This directive led to better defined roles, responsibilities and procedures during foodborne illness investigations. It allowed the agency to more efficiently remove unsafe food from commerce and prevent illnesses," Seys added. Today, public health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commend FSIS for the quality of its foodborne illness investigations. National and international agencies have also contacted the agency to use the directive as a model. Currently, Seys is leading a workgroup to review and update the directive.
Looking to the future
Having received a degree in Human Biology and Spanish from Minnesota State University and a Masters in Public Health degree in Epidemiology, Seys is currently completing research for a Ph.D. in environmental health at the University of Minnesota. "I am excited to be nearing the completion of my degree and hopeful that my research will contribute positively to work being done in the food safety realm."
Applicable to the crucial work he does each and every day at FSIS, Seys concluded with one of his favorite quotes, "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten."
"I think as changes occur, it's important to keep your eyes open for opportunities to improve. Just because something has been done a certain way for years doesn't necessarily make it the best option. There may be confines to work within, but we are constantly challenged to be collaborative, innovative and progressive," reflected Seys. "I'm optimistic that the agency will continue to move forward in this manner, building on our successes with data-driven goals."