Dr. Juan Rodriguez’s Nurturing Nature Led to FSIS
Dr. Juan F. Rodriguez, Director of the FSIS International Liaison Office in Mexico City, Mexico, has worked for FSIS for over 26 years. In May 2017, FSIS opened the Mexico City Office. In his current role with the Office of International Coordination (OIC), Dr. Rodriguez represents FSIS in Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean on technical issues pertaining to the import and export of meat, poultry and egg products to promote their safety for international trade.
His FSIS Career Path
Dr. Rodriguez began his FSIS career in the Office of Field Operations in 1994 as an in-plant supervisory medical officer in Puerto Rico. Four years later, he became a frontline supervisor, overseeing a team of employees working at FSIS-regulated facilities in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
He moved to Washington, D.C., in 2009 after accepting a position as a veterinary medical officer (VMO) with the Office of International Affairs’ Export Programs Staff at headquarters.
In 2014, Dr. Rodriguez became a senior program auditor with the Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit’s International Audit Staff where he conducted on-site evaluations of foreign food safety systems for equivalence to U.S. requirements. His next move was to the FSIS Mexico City Office in 2017. Of his contributions to OIC, Dr. Rodriguez’s supervisor, FSIS International Coordination Executive Dr. Michelle Catlin, said, “Dr. Rodriguez has extensive knowledge and expertise from years of experience in a number of different positions with FSIS, a solution oriented approach to his work and a natural ability to work with others. With all those attributes, Dr. Rodriguez has substantially improved FSIS’ relationships with countries throughout Central and South America, improved those countries’ understanding of our food safety inspection system, helped ensure the safety of imports from those countries and increased the confidence those countries have in the safety of FSIS-regulated exports.”
Changes in the Past Year
Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Rodriguez’s position required occasional travel to other countries in the geographic region his office covers. Much of the work could be accomplished remotely by way of telephone conference calls, but some of the work, such as delivering seminars to groups on food safety topics, were transitioned to software platforms such as Microsoft Teams during the pandemic. Dr. Rodriguez also has used such platforms to successfully engage in “face to face” discussions with his counterparts in foreign countries to address many issues involving exports (e.g., certificate language changes that would allow additional FSIS regulated products to enter a foreign market and stuck shipment issues), imports (e.g., equivalence determination requests from foreign countries and investigations involving point of entry violations of foreign products arriving in the U.S.) and providing technical assistance to foreign countries on new and existing FSIS inspection methods.
FSIS Empowers Through Training Dr. Rodriguez believes FSIS empowers all its employees, especially those in frontline positions, to carry out the job of protecting public health. “The training we receive provides us with the knowledge we need to ensure public health is being protected. And the resources and tools the Agency makes available for us to carry out our mission have a direct impact on our ability to do so,” he said.
Because he believes food safety is a global concern and he enjoys helping others, he is fulfilled by his work. Said Dr. Rodriguez.
The Early Years and Military Service
Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Dr. Rodriguez was interested in pursuing a career in agriculture from a very young age. His mother shared with him her love of growing and taking care of living things. This led him to earn two degrees — his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal and Poultry Science in 1981 and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) degree in 1987 — from Tuskegee University in Alabama.
After receiving his D.V.M. and a short stint working for an equine practice, Dr. Rodriguez became a Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Army, where he served until 1993. As a VMO with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, he was responsible for both animal care and food inspection. Said Dr. Rodriguez, “My military experience prepared me very well for the work I carry out in FSIS. My military service certainly helped develop my leadership abilities, which have served me throughout my career.” After his military service, Dr. Rodriguez worked as a veterinarian at a racetrack in Puerto Rico for a year, and then he applied for a position with the Agency. Dr. Charles Merrell, an FSIS veterinarian who served as Dr. Rodriguez’s trainer at the Canton, Georgia, facility where he received his initial training, was his mentor for many years. Said Dr. Rodriguez, “Dr. Merrell provided me with valuable technical advice on poultry slaughter and labor management issues that I encountered when I reported to my first assignment. He also taught me to make myself available as a mentor to others.”