December 1, 2022

How the U.S. Department of Agriculture Relies on Training to Keep America’s Food Safe

A shopper who enters a supermarket instantly feels a sense of confidence and trust. They believe every food item and every drink in the store is safe. It’s an important part of daily life. Imagine what would happen if exactly the opposite became true. What would people eat? Where would they shop? What might happen to their health? It would be a disaster.

It’s the same with ordering in or dining out. Everyone must feel confident that food is safe to eat.

When people are ready to consume food and drink, the responsibility for safety comes from three sources: grocery stores, suppliers, and restaurants. Many states also have agricultural departments with some degree of responsibility for safety. However, the ultimate responsibility lies with a federal agency: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA has many roles, but one crucial job is ensuring the safety of what Americans eat and drink. This happens through an agency called the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The stated goal: “FSIS protects the public's health by ensuring that meat, poultry, and egg products are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. FSIS is part of a science-based national system to ensure food safety and food defense.” There are over 3,300 inspectors in the FSIS.

While it’s just one part of the USDA, the FSIS is a large department with thousands of employees and contractors around the country. The inspection department has 10 district offices with numerous sub-offices. The Denver office alone serves 13 states and U.S. territories. The FSIS also works closely with private enterprises to ensure the safety of the food supply.

Training for these crucial roles

Every single member of the FSIS must be fully trained. Their training must always be current. The department that oversees this training is the Office of Employee Experience and Development (OEED), which is part of the USDA. The OEED is ultimately responsible for employee development, education, and training programs created to ensure public health and food safety through inspection and enforcement.

Essentially, OEED trains the people who are in the field every day, looking at meat, produce, and other foodstuffs to ensure that what we eat is safe to consume. It’s scientific work that requires a high level of specialized training. The training must be created and delivered by genuine experts in food safety. The training must be effective: the public relies on USDA food inspectors for their day-to-day well-being.

The private sector also relies on this training, so they understand the full expectations of the U.S. government when it comes to food safety. Approximately 70% of people who receive training are federal employees and contractors. The remainder is from the private sector. Food companies want to complete their own inspections and require inspectors to be USDA-certified.

Everything was going according to plan until …

The OEED was offering its training programs through a mix of in-person and online training. The in-person “live” training was crucial because someone who might be inspecting fish and related products needs to see first-hand what a diseased and inedible fish looks like. It’s the same with other meat and produce.

But then came the first few months of 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation impacted the entire USDA, but it especially impacted live training from the OEED. Suddenly, live training could not take place.

The OEED holds live training for many reasons. One of these reasons is to help kinesthetic learners. Most people prefer to learn in one of three ways:

V – Visual. Learning by watching or seeing.

A – Auditory. Learning by hearing what to do.

K – Kinesthetic. Learning by feeling or touch.

Online training can usually work for visual and auditory learners. However, online learning can be much more challenging for kinesthetic learners.

Overcoming the challenge

Fortunately, there’s a program that helps. It’s called S.L.I.C.K. (Students Learning in the Classroom Kinesthetically). As the title implies, the program helps kinesthetic learners take their training in the classroom or even online without some type of immediate tactile experience.

The OEED at the USDA had to return to S.L.I.C.K. in order to continue its training. To make this happen and to ensure its effectiveness, the training experts at the OEED turned to Blackboard® Learn, now part of Anthology. The OEED has been working with Blackboard Learn since 2016.

One key element of the training was turning two-dimensional images into three-dimensional images. In one case, the team took an image of a diseased strawberry and made it appear real. In another example, a diseased head of lettuce suddenly became so real it was almost ready to touch. This helped the kinesthetic learners.

Using this training technology, the OEED was able to maintain its training programs online during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was especially important because, during the early stages of the crisis, there were significant worries about the food chain and its safety. It was crucial for the USDA to ensure the public felt confident about the food supply and food safety. Public and private food inspectors had to keep inspecting food.

Solving another problem

Training from the OEED cannot be neglected and it must be effective. The people who take the training must become exceptional in their professional roles. Failure could lead to countless Americans becoming seriously ill.

To ensure that people attending the online training pay attention and learn, Anthology helped the OEED make the training interactive. Questions appeared after each section of the training. These questions were very specific yet open-ended. This ensured that inspection staff was learning crucial information.

One goal at the OEED is to ensure that everyone who takes the training is thinking intensively and critically. This takes place to keep the full attention of the learner and ensure the learner can take the curriculum to grocery stores, warehouses, and food manufacturing facilities.

Building an important sense of community … and moving the agency forward

Community is important at USDA. The OEED asked training specialists at Anthology how to encourage audience engagement during live training to create a sense of community. Through Anthology’s Blackboard Learn, the USDA was also able to set up community forums for the OEED. Conversations started during training continue through the forums.

The OEED is also branching out into professional development and teaching methodology certification. The goal is to improve the quality of learning and teaching. Again, Anthology is helping to make this possible. The OEED must also handle growth. The number of people who must receive USDA training is accelerating. The number of topics that must be covered is also increasing. The scalability of the Blackboard Learn platform helps to make training growth simple and seamless.

Buying and enjoying food is a part of daily life. However, few people fully understand what it really takes to ensure the safety of the food supply. USDA food inspectors play a crucial role. Their success starts with the highly specialized training they receive from the instructors at the OEED.

To learn more, watch Rebirth of S.L.I.C.K (Students Learning in the Classroom Kinesthetically)

Headshot of Celena Westlund

Celena Westlund

Senior Marketing Manager for Business and Government

Westlund joined Anthology in 2021, bringing nearly 11 years of government and marketing experience, including over 7 years at the U.S. Institute of Peace and 3.5 years at a MarTech company. In her role at Anthology, she works to create awareness and demand for our EdTech solutions in federal, state, and local governments, and within corporate entities. Westlund graduated from Washington State University with an M.A. in strategic communication and previously earned an M.A. from American University in international peace and conflict resolution, with a focus on conflict in the Southern Balkans.