When I read Chuck Jolley’s recent Feedstuffs blog, “Independence Day and the King of Summer Foods,” I was nearly insanely jealous that I had not thought to write a blog about summer grilling and the Fourth of July and hot dogs.
But today I am reminded why it is better to wait, and that led to reflection on my very first week as the undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, something Dr. Mindy Brashears has been waiting nearly one and half years to experience (another recent Jolley blog).
Unless you are a serious reader of all electronic meat and poultry outlets, you may not know that July 17, 2019, is National Hot Dog Day. You may not know it because it changes at the whim of the National American Meat Institute (NAMI).
Oh, it is always in July, National Hot Dog Month, but the day is whichever day NAMI chooses to serve hot dogs on Capitol Hill to over 1,000 legislators, staffers, USDA members, etc.
Multiple companies such as Hormel, Tyson Foods and Johnsonville come in with their fancy food carts and dish out their dogs and brauts in the inner gardens of one of the buildings housing U.S. Representatives. My first year I think it was the Canon Building.
Besides the food, NAMI has popular retired baseball players roaming around signing baseballs for folks.
I started at USDA on Monday. On Wednesday I was told it was National Hot Dog Day and I had to go show face, but I could not eat a dog as someone might snap a picture and use it against me for accepting gifts from the industry I regulated.
Like, for sure, Hormel, you want faster line speeds, you got ‘em. And thanks for the hot dog.
The other interesting note on this 100 degree day with 60% humidity and wearing a coat and tie while watching other people eat and enjoy themselves, besides meeting, for the first time, many of the major players in the meat industry, was our entrance and exit to the Canon Building’s interior gardens.
The PETA girls were at the front door, protesting the slaughter of animals to make hot dogs, wearing strategically placed lettuce leaves to cover body parts; but barely.
What could be worse for the new undersecretary than being caught on film eating a Hormel hot dog?
Getting caught on film in a group hug with nearly nude PETA babes.
Yep, they snuck me in and out via the back doors making me feel more than just a little bit slimy.
And, “Now you know the rest of the (hot dog) story.”
So, what was the rest of the first week memorable for?
Monday they put me in a car with three top Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) folks and drove me over to the Shenandoah Valley to tour a conventional chicken slaughter plant, a HIMP chicken plant (not that I knew the difference on that first day), a turkey plant and a cornish game hen plant.
After all, we could not have some nosy reporter ask me how many poultry plants I had been in, could we? (Coming from Nebraska beef plants were never an issue.)
Four take homes:
- My first time inside a plant with all those birds flying around at high speeds made me think Wee Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
- The majority of the workers at the cornish game hen plant were elderly caucasian females, not your typical stereotype. I guess their reward for long-term service were smaller birds and slower lines.
- Speaking of bird size, the guy I felt the sorry for was the one grabbing those big Tom Turkeys and hanging them from shackles as they beat the heck out of him with their big wings.
- We stopped for lunch at a Five Guys and one of the FSIS staffers asked for a bun with just lettuce, tomato and onion. No burger. Made me wonder if top officials did not think ground beef was safe to eat.
Second day they flew me to Chicago, Ill., to speak to the annual meeting of the Office of Field Operations attended by all the district and deputy district managers.
I had a speech prepared by the office of communications but no podium. How dorky and uncomfortable would that have been to stand up there and read word for word from the written page?
I winged it and basically did that the rest of my tenure in the office. It made the handlers nervous. I might have left out one or two pithy comments some speech writer was proud of, but it just felt more natural.
Day four I made a presentation to employees celebrating diversity. I went off the cuff and ventured I was the newest employee there. Wrong, two newbies started that day.
On the fifth day, an inspector in Montana found what he felt was enough to shut down Ranchland Packing. It might have not been as big of a deal if Montana had not just held its state fair with its attendant livestock auction.
You see the governor, a democrat, had his purple ribbon winning lamb carcass hanging in the cooler.
The phone call that day started out “Dr. Raymond, we have a problem.” I had been in politics long enough long enough to know that meant “Dr. Raymond, you have a problem.”
That action started a long saga involving Montana originally, but eventually became a small plant issue and was the start of creating the Office of Outreach, Employment, Education & Training.
So, something very good came about because of that first week; one I will probably never forget.
And remember Jolley’s blog: “No body, I mean No Body puts Ketchup on a hot dog!”