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From regulations to recalls, Arma N. White ’04 monitors the nation’s health
How often do you wonder if your store-bought food was grown properly? Or if your makeup contains any harmful chemicals?
We’ve come to expect that stores are stocked with quality products from reliable sources, but that isn’t by accident. An entire industry of professionals is working to protect ordinary consumers from potentially dangerous products.
Arma N. White ’04, a consumer safety officer (microbiology) in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Office of Compliance, is one of those professionals. Every day, White plays detective, scientist, instructor and security guard, all in the name of protecting your next meal or mascara.
“Our group’s main goal is to reduce foodborne illness by improving food safety,” said White from her office in Washington, D.C. “We want you to be able to go out, purchase food and consume it and you not get sick. You can follow our lead and have that assurance from the FDA that we’re ensuring your food supply is safe.”
The FDA reviews millions of products every day to ensure there are no secrets, surprises or side effects waiting for customers on the shelves of their local stores.
White compares the sprawling FDA campus where she works to Auburn University—spread out across the massive compound are specialized centers for drugs, food, biologics, devices, veterinary medicine, tobacco and more, with thousands of employees working in each area.
CFSAN is responsible for promoting and protecting the public’s health by ensuring that the nation’s food supply, dietary supplements and cosmetic products are sanitary, wholesome and honestly labeled. International and domestic products must go through a strict vetting process before making it onto store shelves.
Whether instructing farmers and manufacturers how to better protect their crops or products (and avoid federal punishment) or tracking down a spreading virus to its source, White understands the gravity of every new reported outbreak.
“[What] was eye opening to realize was how many people actually get sick from consuming food and they don’t report it. A lot of times when you get sick, you wouldn’t necessarily go to the doctor. You may just say ‘Oh, I have a stomach bug,’ and you just forget about it without realizing how many actually were sick from that product.”
White excelled in science and math as a student but didn’t know where her career path would lead. That changed when she took a class at Auburn in food microbiology under Thomas McCaskey.
“He was an extraordinary professor and would always share these personal, vivid stories that you can still remember years later,” recalled White. “That’s where I first fell in love with food science.”
One of White’s first jobs after graduation was as a state health inspector in her hometown of LaGrange, Ga., where she took full control of the food program because “nobody really had an interest in it.” She taught local restaurants basic food safety practices and incentivized them to comply by publishing their health scores in local newspapers.
Once word of her work spread, the rest of the state took notice. She started teaching classes outside of LaGrange and was asked to help collect epidemiological information for foodborne outbreaks and train other health inspectors. Looking to continue her work in a bigger city, White landed her “dream job” at the FDA a decade ago and has grown to love her work even more today.
In 2020, she worked on multiple foodborne outbreaks involving e. coli, salmonella and listeria. If a product suddenly triggers an outbreak, like romaine lettuce has in the past, the FDA works with the Center for Disease Control and the states to identify the source and remove the contaminated product.
In one instance, she helped the FDA recall four million pounds of a product contaminated with salmonella, one of their largest seizures ever.
If a manufacturer has been associated with an outbreak or has had adulterated products in the past, they must show evidence that they’ve overcome the issue and done corrective actions and testing. The FDA sends investigators (like White, on occasion) out to farms and manufacturers around the country to inspect the facilities and determine their compliance with applicable laws and regulations.
Sometimes the steps to protect the food are as simple as putting up barriers to keep out animals or ensuring the use of proper handwashing facilities on farms, but ultimately it is the producer’s responsibility to correct the issue. “We give the facility the opportunity to [take] corrective actions after the inspection and we evaluate data to determine if it appears to be adequate. We can also take enforcement actions like a public warning letter, regulatory meeting or recall. Or it could be something more serious—an injunction, civil money penalty, product seizure or suspension of the firm’s registration.”
It’s a demanding job that sometimes takes 12-hour workdays, but White looks forward to the challenge.
“This is where I’m supposed to be. It doesn’t matter if there are long hours, I just enjoy the work and protecting the public. Everybody is affected by food because we all must eat to stay alive. It’s very rewarding to be in a career that’s always evolving, and to know that you protected your friends and family, and people that you haven’t even met.”