Top 10 reasons Almanza will be leaving legacy behind (commentary)

Al Almanza is getting close to hitting the 40 year mark with USDA and its FSIS. Will he make it?

Al Almanza is getting close to hitting the 40 year mark with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS).

Will he make it?

My own personal feeling is probably not, and there are many reasons for that but first a little history needs reviewed.

Almanza joined USDA 38 years ago as a meat inspector at a very small beef slaughter facility in Dalhart, Texas, after a little more than two years of college (more on that later).

He did not stay at that level for very long as his traits of honesty, common sense and hard work ethic brought him several promotions in a very short time, ultimately rising to be the FSIS Labor Management Specialist and got him off the floors and out of the plants.

In 2004 he was promoted by a very smart FSIS Administrator by the name of Dr. Barbara Masters to become the Texas District Manager, where he had over 600 employees working in approximately 350 plants.

In July, 2005, I got my Senate approval and quickly moved to Washington, D.C., to become the Undersecretary for Food Safety at the USDA, the political appointee for oversight of FSIS and food safety issues.

One of the things I did early on was to travel to each of the then 15 District Offices to introduce myself and to get a better lay of the land as opposed to just listening to those in the DC offices who may have a bias or two about individual District and Deputy District Managers.

What stood out most impressively to me on those visits was that the Texas staff, to a person, seemed happy with their position in the District and especially happy with Almanza and his staff. 

When Masters left the USDA, I named David Goldman, M.D., and head of the Office of Public Health and Science to be the Interim Administrator for FSIS.

After discussions with some of the FSIS staffers I had come to know and trust, I made a trip to Dallas and asked Almanza if he would come to D.C. and serve as my Administrator.

His immediate reply was “yes, whatever you need from me Doc.”

In fact, it was such a quick response I suspect he had received a heads up on the why and wherefore of my trip.

So in June of 2007 I advised the Secretary of the USDA, Mike Johanns, of my plan.

I was summoned into the Office of the Chief of Staff later that day and it was suggested to me that the position of Administrator of the FSIS should at least be filled by a person with a college degree.

My response was, to paraphrase, “are we more interested in what Al did 30 years ago, or are we more interested in what he has done in the last five years as  the Deputy District Manager and later District Manager down in Texas, the best run, most efficient District we have?”

We discussed all the attributes he would bring to the table, and how his depth and breadth of experience was perfect for the position.

Not to mention that he was proficient in Spanish, and many of our international incidents involving food safety flowed up from South of the U.S.

The Secretary had worked long enough with me in Nebraska and D.C. to trust my judgment, and Almanza moved.

That was nine years ago last June, and that is about four years longer than Tom Billy served, one of the longest, if not THE longest, tenured FSIS Administrators.

Running FSIS is almost a thankless task.

Industry bucks if you take an action against a plant, the advocates bark if you don’t take strong enough actions, and there are, of course, always those employee issues one can expect when your job title lists 10,000 employees as your responsibility.

That is the first reason I suspect Almanza will move on before May 2018, which would be his 40th anniversary.

The next big kudo for Almanza came when current USDA Secretary Vilsack, on Sept. 9, 2014, named him as one of two Deputy Undersecretaries for Food Safety while keeping all his responsibilities as the Administrator.

Since there has been no Undersecretary since September 2014, Almanza has basically filled those shoes also, which means being the spokesperson to the media, consumers and industry, being the scapegoat and/or testifier at Congressional Hearings, meeting regularly with the Secretary and the other Undersecretaries and doing the international travel the Under would do if there were one.

As an example of the toll that can take on a dad with a 7 year old daughter, Almanza has been to China more than a dozen times. Dealing with chicken and catfish import issues will do that to the person holding that position.

Reasons two and three I predict he won’t make the 40-year mark.

Number two, a young daughter at home, missing her Dad.

Number three, the long distance Asian travel gets harder as one ages.

Almanza has served four secretaries, both Democrat and Republican.

Johanns, Conner, Schafer and Vilsack; Four very different men with different agendas.

Can he survive breaking in a fifth? Reason number four.

Reasons number five and six are back home in Texas; an 800 acre ranch with Angus Cross cattle roaming the hills must be calling to him very loudly (or would that be mooing to him?) and wife Wendy.

But knowing Almanza he will not leave the 10,000 employees rudderless until the new Administration is set in place, at which time he may prove me wrong.

Before I sign off, a quick look at what Almanza considers some of his most important accomplishments:

  1. Reducing the number of District Offices from 15 to 10, bringing more efficiency and less overhead.
  2. Rolling out the New Poultry Inspection System despite much adversity.  
  3. Declaring non-O157 STECs in ground beef to be adulterants.
  4. Salmonella and Campylobacter Performance Standards for the industry to meet.
  5. Labelling of tenderized beef as being just such (this is one area where Almanza and I agree to disagree).
  6. Reducing the number of face to face international audits by modernizing that part of the system and again reducing FTEs and cost of travel.
  7. Rolling out the Public Health Information System to make FSIS more proactive and efficient in data collection. (This system has been plagued with delays and cost overruns, none of which are the Administrator’s fault, plus when a crisis hits USDA, like the current forest fires, the IT system for the USDA does not have the capacity it needs to support PHIS)

Almanza and I agree that FSIS needs to modernize, and he has brought some modernization to the agency.

I have penned blogs on the need, he has testified to Congress and any group who will listen, but when you bring up electronic inspection or dual jurisdiction plants, you have stirred the hornets’ nest and you get attacked from all sides, including media, industry, advocates and the bargaining unit. Reasons number seven to 10.

You have done well my friend, best wishes to you when you move on and give young Peyton an extra hug from me tonight.

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