The Washington Post

USDA scientist works to keep food supply safe

Emilio Esteban

Executive associate for laboratory services, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Department of Agriculture

Best known for: If the federal government orders a recall of ground beef, pork, poultry or processed egg products because of potentially deadly bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella or listeria, there is a good chance that Esteban will be involved.

Esteban oversees three USDA laboratories where the food supply is analyzed for potential food-borne hazards. The labs run some 200,000 tests a year, including about 100,000 for E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

Esteban often is part of the team that decides to remove certain food from stores. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly one in six Americans, or 48 million people, get food-borne diseases each year; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Esteban said the ability of scientists to detect contamination has greatly improved. Analyzing a food sample can now be done in a matter of hours instead of weeks. Scientists also are capable of extracting information on multiple pathogens from individual food samples.

Esteban said scientists can produce a DNA fingerprint of dangerous bacteria found in a sick person and match it with the DNA of the bacteria found in a food source. A precise determination of the cause of an outbreak means a faster response that may save lives.

Government work: Esteban spent seven years at the CDC as an epidemic intelligence service officer, staff epidemiologist and assistant director for food safety. He moved to the USDA in 2001 and has held the roles of food safety laboratory director, scientific adviser and now executive associate for laboratory services.

Motivation for service: Esteban initially worked as a veterinarian but wanted greater impact. This led him to the CDC and then the USDA.

Biggest challenge: On any given day, Esteban may be talking with consumer groups, industry representatives, research scientists or regulators to explain changes in sampling and testing methods and revised standards. He said one of his biggest challenges is communicating to varied audiences why the USDA is taking a particular action.

Quote: “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. In addition, I have the opportunity to travel around the world to learn how others conduct food safety-related public health and to share the U.S. approach and principles with many cultures and social systems.”

— From the Partnership
for Public Service

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