Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, with nothing else coming a close second, but lately the national industry has come under fire with the recent salmonella-related recall of manufactured products using peanut paste from a single supplier. Fortunately, Virginia’s peanut industry has not been implicated in the scare, and I encourage all Virginians to continue to enjoy Virginia peanuts and the delicious specialty products made from Virginia peanuts.

However, with food safety dominating the headlines of late, I believe this is a good time to examine the food inspection programs conducted by highly trained staff at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) and to reassure folks about the safety of our food supply.

Despite recent events, America still has one of the safest food supplies in the world, and also one of the most abundant and affordable. While no one can ever promise every aspect of the food supply is 100 percent safe, I can say wholeheartedly that I have a great deal of confidence in our various food inspection programs here at VDACS and in the integrity of our farmers and our food processors.

VDACS’ inspection programs cover three separate areas: Food, dairy and meat/poultry. These programs include the farm, the processor, the warehouse, the retail outlet and transportation.

We take a risk-based approach with inspections, giving greater attention to high-risk areas like a meat-processing facility. Every day these facilities are open, our inspectors are on the job. Their knowledge and level of training might surprise you. When they start employment with us, they must undergo extensive training and an apprenticeship period before being allowed to work on the production floor by themselves. They also receive on-going education to maintain and update their skills and knowledge.

Meat and poultry plants may range from a slaughter operation to a complex food processing plant. Inspectors must have a comprehensive knowledge of food processing, control of sanitary processes and animal characteristics and habits, and they have to know inside and out the principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOP). They must have a thorough knowledge of the regulations governing the meat processing industry, and they have to have a keen eye for any abnormalities in a beef, chicken or other carcass.

They must be able to read and interpret a plant’s plans based on Hazard Analysis and then be able to make judgments about implementation of the Critical Control Points they observe on site. Inspectors focus on the process as much or more than the product. At a slaughter plant, they also monitor humane handling of animals and must be able to identify any materials that could indicate the presence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

Food inspectors generally don’t deal with live animals, but they have to know about everything from raw products to processed foods to nutritional supplements. They routinely visit retail food stores, storage warehouses and food manufacturing establishments in the Commonwealth. Our food inspectors’ duties include performing regular food establishment inspections, investigating consumer complaints and monitoring the food supply via sampling for microbiological concerns, filth, pesticide residues, product standards and appropriate product labeling. They, too, operate under HACCP and SSOP.

If you ever see an inspector in a store, he or she may be checking overall cleanliness, ensuring that the equipment and utensils are not dirty and that they are cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. They check to see that good employee practices, such as proper hand washing, are followed. They check temperature controls, look for recalled products, review records, check labels and perform many other tasks. In addition, they ensure the firm is generally in good repair and that it is properly plumbed.

They look to see that there is no evidence of insect or rodent activity in the firm. In addition, they ensure foods are properly labeled and that foods are protected from all types of contamination. All these things are part of the enforcement of the Virginia Food Laws and related regulations.

Dairy inspectors review and approve new permits for a variety of entities, from dairy farms and milk haulers to facilities that transfer milk from pickup at the farm to the milk tankers that transport it to the processor. They also inspect and approve permits for facilities that wash and sanitize milk trucks, as well as facilities for manufacturing cheeses, butter, ice cream and frozen desserts.

They perform routine inspections, collect samples and initiate enforcement actions to correct violations. Inspectors provide advice and assistance to permit-holders to make sure their facilities, equipment design and construction requirements comply with the law, and they assist dairy producers with resolving product quality issues.

Food and dairy inspectors often have a background in food or dairy science, biology or microbiology, and like meat and poultry inspectors, they receive extensive and on-going training before handling inspections on their own.

They must have a comprehensive knowledge of Virginia’s food laws and all related regulations and they must know the industry and its acceptable production practices.

Some of the traits of good inspectors are attention to detail, common sense, a keen eye and nose and the ability to make quick and reliable, fact-based decisions. They need good interpersonal skills in their interactions with store and plant managers, but they also need to be able to stick to their guns in difficult situations, such as pulling product from the shelves or ordering the destruction of product.

After or during many disasters — floods, fires, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and power outages — inspectors are among the first responders. I know they sometimes have to wade through flooded streets to gain entry into a plant or store to assess damage, and then follow up where appropriate with destruction orders. Often they are stretched way beyond their comfort zones and I’m sure they often feel like theirs is a thankless task. So, during Agriculture Week of March 15-21, I want all Virginians to know these dedicated employees are your first line of defense in the war against unsafe food. They are on the job five days a week, and often more, to protect you and your family, and I want you to be aware of everything they do to keep us safe and healthy.