Meat to please you

Dr. Dennis Thompson ensures the animals we eat don’t kill us

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

This week in the Capitol, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is defending an absurd budget plan. Numerous state legislators are pledging not to raise taxes. Vital programs and departments are scrambling for their share of a dwindling pie. Slowly but surely, the public safety net is being shredded.

Meanwhile, Dr. Dennis Thompson continues to work at the Department of Food and Agriculture as he has for the last 30 years, dedicated to ensuring a safe food supply for all Californians.

Trained as a veterinarian, Thompson had no intention of staying at the department when he first came onboard. Thirty years later, this funny, modest public employee oversees the department’s Meat and Poultry Inspection branch. In addition to other duties, his department regulates all of California’s rendering plants, where millions of pounds of animals and their waste products are disposed of and recycled each year. I recently interviewed him in connection with an advertising supplement we’re working on about the Sacramento Rendering Company.

Thompson could have made more money as a private-sector veterinarian. He probably would have worked fewer hours. But he knows that the work he does, while largely unnoticed, is important—very important. If his agency screws up, people can die.

Before the government went into the food-inspection business, spoiled meat was openly sold, and people did die. Today’s system is a different animal, where tens of thousands of different entities—farmers, meat-packing companies, rendering plants, shippers and retailers—all have to play by the rules to keep food safe. It’s up to Thompson to enforce those rules.

Right now, our elected officials are talking about more cutbacks, more layoffs and more furlough days. But before they make any more cuts, they need to consider the importance of the work done by Thompson and many other state agencies and employees.

This is not to say that government shouldn’t be more efficient. But it’s important for us not to throw the baby out with the bath water. As our elected officials posture and proclaim, let’s hope they remember the critical institutions that defend and enhance our way of life: the resource boards that protect our air and water, the health-care system, police and fire departments, the folks who repair our streets and stock the books in our libraries, and last but not least, the state Department of Food Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Inspection division.