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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

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Web Content Viewer (JSR 286)

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Faces of Food Safety: Mark Wheeler, From Bug Larvae to Labels

Mark WheelerThirty-seven years ago, Mark Wheeler, a biological scientist, worked in a very obscure field in an FSIS laboratory looking for extraneous materials in food. And what he often found was very interesting, if not alarming.

“I found a mouse in a burrito; little, white insect larvae floating around in a steam tray of chili con carne; and buckshot in corned beef,” he recalled. “It was like I was playing detective because I had to figure out why and how these things wound up in the food and if the establishments that produced these products were out of compliance.”

Wheeler has seen positive changes over the years when it comes to industry being in compliance. He stated that in the ’60s and ’70s, the raw materials that the agency received for testing at the lab weren’t as clean as they are now, so it was sometimes difficult to know if the problem occurred inside or outside the establishment. However, because of FSIS’ tenacity to make sure establishments followed FSIS’ policies and regulations, “the industry cleaned up its act and improved their manufacturing processes,” he said. In essence, FSIS improved its regulatory program and the industry improved its processes, which all served to benefit the consumer.

Fast Forward 19 Years

In 1996, when the agency closed the lab in which Wheeler worked, he found a position that could benefit from his entomological and food science background and from his interest in nutrition and organic foods. The position was in OPPD’s Food Labeling Division.

"I know that what I do is important and helps keep consumers safe."

Mark Wheeler

“I like what I do because I not only see, first hand, the formulation of meat and poultry products every day, I enforce and interpret regulations and policies through the label-review process,” he said. “I know that what I do is important and helps keep consumers safe,” he said.

Wheeler also knows that his work is far reaching and valuable. “When the agency wants to institute a new regulation or policy, I reach out to the agency’s economists, and we do a cost-benefit analysis to see how the policy change will affect the agency, the industry and the consumer. The agency doesn’t want the consumer to absorb the cost of a policy change, such as more industry testing for Listeria monocytogenes (Lm). But if the agency feels that more testing for Lm will benefit the consumer by fewer people getting sick with listeriosis, then the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Labeling Department

A large of part of Wheeler’s job consists of ensuring that establishments are listing their products’ ingredients on their labels correctly. “The consumer expects accurate labels on products that FSIS regulates,” he said. “It empowers the consumer if they know what they are reading on the labels is correct so they can make an informed choice.”

Mark Wheeler

Wheeler says he’s been fortunate to have worked on several high-profile regulations. “Over the past year, I’ve participated in some team projects that have advanced the agency’s generic labeling rule, the final rule on mechanically tenderized beef and a directive on label verification targeting the Big 8 allergens,” he said proudly. “All of these rules will help the consumer by providing clear and important labeling on meat and poultry products, and that’s an important goal for the agency.”

Bee-ing Bug-free

The Wilmington, Del., native has been married for 22 years to his wife Patricia. They have an adult daughter.

A retired apiarist (or beekeeper), Wheeler used to raise four colonies of bees at any given time and sold or gave away the honey they produced. But keeping bees meant more to Wheeler than the sweet, syrupy product. He states, “Keeping bees was very therapeutic. I would put on my protective gear, go out to the colonies, then sit and listen to the bees buzzing.”

From working in an agency laboratory, to working to develop labeling policy, it is no exaggeration to say that the American consumer has truly benefited from Wheeler’s talents and commitment to the agency’s public health mission.

Last Modified Oct 17, 2016