“We run some 200,000 tests a year on samples of food and determine whether the food is safe,” said Esteban. “About 100,000 of those samples are tested for e-coli, salmonella or listeria.”
When the laboratory tests uncover contamination, Esteban is often part of a government team that pours over the information and makes the decision to halt shipments of food from production plants or removes the contaminated food from the store shelves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans or 48 million people gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year.
Esteban said the ability of the scientists to detect food contamination has greatly improved over the years.
Where it used to take weeks to analyze a food sample, he said it now can be done in a matter of hours. In addition, scientists are now capable of extracting far more information from individual food samples than in the past.
“Before we took one food sample for each separate pathogen, but now we can test for multiple pathogens from the same sample,” Esteban said.
Esteban said scientists also can produce a DNA fingerprint of bacteria found in individuals who have become ill, and match that with the DNA of the bacteria found in the food source, allowing for a precise determination of the cause of an outbreak and a quicker response to save lives.
In addition to managing 250 people at three USDA laboratories and keeping his pulse on the daily activities, Esteban said he meets with consumers groups, industry representatives, research scientists and regulators to explain changes in sampling and testing methods and revised standards. He said one of his biggest challenges is explaining what the USDA is doing and why it is taking particular actions to the different audiences so they understand the rationale, have the information that they need and can assess the impact.
Before Esteban held his current position, he was the scientific advisor for laboratory services for USDA’s food inspection service. Earlier, he served as the director of agency’s testing laboratory in Alameda, Calif., and did extensive work at the CDC as an epidemiologist and food safety officer.
As head of the USDA’s California laboratory, Esteban played a critical role investigating whether the dangerous chemical melamine, which had been imported from China and used in animal feed, had entered the U.S. food chain. Esteban said he and his team worked day and night, tested numerous food samples from around the country and in the end found no threat to human health.
“It was hard proving a negative, but it was important for the public to know the food supply was safe,” he said.
Dr. Arthur Liang, a senior advisor for food safety at the CDC, said Esteban and his laboratories are “major players in the detection and investigation of food borne diseases.”
Liang, who serves on a multi-agency advisory committee with Esteban, said his USDA colleague brings scientific, technical and management skills to his public health job, and is always looking for new ways to improve the operation of his laboratories.
“He has had an openness to look critically at current operations and to come up with new ideas when times have been good and now that there are fiscal stresses and we have to do more with less,” said Liang.
Patrick McCaskey, Esteban’s former boss, said Esteban “sees the big picture of where the agency has to go and he is able to work on the details of how to get there and make it happen.”
“He also has the personality to deal with folks at all levels, from the lowest employee to politicians and international delegations,” said McCaskey.
Esteban was born in Mexico, became a doctor of veterinary medicine and earned a master’s degree in business administration before moving to the United States. He later obtained a master’s degree in preventive veterinary medicine and a doctorate in epidemiology.
Esteban said he initially worked as a veterinarian, but found this focus limiting and decided to further his education and use new skills to have a bigger impact. This led him to the CDC and now the USDA.
“I have one of the best jobs in the world. I get to apply many years of education and training to providing a safer, healthier food supply,” said Esteban.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.