Robert Witte, Problem Solver
Robert Witte, a Senior Staff Officer with the Policy Development Staff (PDS) in the Office of Policy and Program Development (OPPD), has been with FSIS for 14 years. He enjoys identifying and solving problems, traits that serve him well in the Agency.
Witte’s Role in PDS
In PDS, Witte helps plan, develop and draft FSIS instructions for the more than 7,500 field personnel across the country and guidance to more than 6,400 industry establishments nationwide. This includes responding to scientific and regulatory inquiries from internal and external stakeholders that can be complex — scientifically, legally and logistically. Witte’s expertise focuses on Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in raw beef products, but he never knows what question to expect when he picks up the phone. Said Witte, “I talk with field personnel, industry and the public nearly daily about food safety. Folks can get overwhelmed at times by all the regulatory jargon and scientific studies. When you explain a regulation or food safety principle to someone and know they ‘get it,’ you can feel their stress lower. It’s very rewarding.”
Much of Witte’s duties include helping fulfill the policy needs of the field and providing FSIS leadership with the information they need. “A lot of what I do day-to-day is simply to solve problems related to policy gaps, Public Health Information System (PHIS) functionality, sample collection and communication breakdowns of all sorts.”
While Witte is quick to give credit to people in program areas across FSIS for their work on different initiatives, he has made major contributions to many projects. Witte led the development and implementation of a new Meat and Poultry Inspection Directory webpage. The result combines multiple datasets to show where establishments are located and what they produce. “This was created to enhance customer service and answer common questions we receive through askFSIS,” he said.
Witte participating in a meeting with other subject matter experts across offices in FSIS to evaluate data collected from sampling tasks. Pictured (left to right) Jean Mah (OPARM), Witte (OPPD), Stevie Hretz (OPPD) and Jeoffrey Levine (OPHS).
Another recent project includes streamlining internal PHIS sample questionnaires to save field personnel time while also increasing the quality of data gathered. More recently, Witte has been working with peers in FSIS and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop CODEX guidance documents for food producers on the international level. The purpose of the project, co-chaired by the U.S. and Chile, is to provide practical ways to minimize STECs in beef slaughter plants and raw beef products.
Witte’s FSIS Career Path
Witte credits a college friend who worked as an egg products inspector for bringing him to FSIS. “I was still in school and started as a student intern inspector with no idea what FSIS did, no food safety experience or any idea what I was getting myself into. The intern schedule worked, and the pay was good, so I jumped in,” said Witte.
OPPD’s Policy Development Staff is a Team
Witte feels fortunate to be part of PDS and the OPPD team. Said Witte, “Leadership at each level in OPPD is great — they set the vision and give everyone flexibility for how they carry out the mission. PDS primarily deals with the field inspection-related policy and has a lot of in-plant experience in livestock or poultry slaughter, processing and egg products. PDS includes a bunch of problem solvers who came from the field and truly care about the field and FSIS’ mission. None of us has all the answers, so teamwork is critical. Discussion and debate are commonplace at PDS — it’s a great team to be a part of.” Dr. John Linville, the PDS Director adds, “Bob is not only dedicated to making people’s lives better through advancing public health, but also to making the work required to do so more fun for his coworkers.”
Family and Friends
Witte offers advice to others beginning their FSIS career, “Everyone has to start somewhere, so don’t focus on where you are, focus on where you are going.” He advises to keep looking for problems and offering solutions, saying “it is amazing how fast you can work yourself into becoming essential. Keep seeking new opportunities. There is little in FSIS that can’t be learned. If you have integrity, intelligence and energy, you’ll have a great career and be able to positively impact food safety.”
Witte and his wife, Brooke, son, Brennan (age 9) and daughter, Sydney (age 7) live on a lake in Iowa and enjoy water activities in the summer and supporting the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers in the fall. Witte also enjoys working on home improvement projects. He teaches his children about “germs” and general food safety concepts. Given his career, he is often confronted with myths and misperceptions about food safety from friends and family during social events, and he enjoys dispelling the myths and providing common sense ways they can protect themselves from foodborne illness.