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Faces of Food Safety: Meet Ciarra Toomey


FSIS’ International Liaison Director in Mexico City, Mexico, Ciarra Toomey, began her USDA career in 2008 as a trial attorney with the Office of the General Counsel’s (OGC) Trade Practices Division, now the Marketing, Regulatory and Food Safety Programs Division. In her role with OGC, Toomey represented and provided legal counsel to USDA agencies, including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Agricultural Marketing Service, on a variety of legal, policy and international issues as well as civil, criminal and administrative enforcement actions. She also represented FSIS in administrative and federal court matters, often bringing federal actions against establishments for regulation violations with the goal of getting establishments back into compliance.

In early 2022, Toomey learned of the international liaison director vacancy within the FSIS Office of International Coordination (OIC). Her OGC experience with APHIS involved working with Mexican authorities on a number of issues and she was intrigued. She applied for the position and accepted the job in April 2022.

Ciarra Toomey

Responsibilities

As the OIC international liaison director, Toomey oversees all aspects of directing the FSIS office in Mexico. She works very closely with FSIS’ and APHIS’ foreign counterpart, the National Service of Agro-Alimentary Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA), an agency in the Mexican Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. She works to develop a broad, coordinated food safety program that focuses on critical mission-related activities and issues within Mexico to determine food safety performance deficiencies or underperformance in meeting FSIS’ stated public health mission and objectives in Mexico and several countries in Central America.

The international liaison director’s role carries many responsibilities. Toomey said, “Part of my role is to develop and maintain relationships with foreign government and industry officials to further FSIS’ mission in the country. My job is important to the nation because the work of our office helps to ensure that food is safe coming in and out of Mexico. We are protecting not only the public health of the United States, but internationally as well.” To achieve this, she works daily with other USDA agencies, namely APHIS and the Foreign Agricultural Service, to coordinate an approach across USDA agencies to solve complex trade problems on our shared border with Mexico.

First Year Milestones

In the past year, Toomey has conducted seminars for Mexican government officials to help them better understand FSIS export procedures and our agency as a whole, with a focus on export certification documents. She explains what happens if there is a contaminated or adulterated sample or if we receive a contaminated product on our side of the border. In this role of “helping our neighbors,” as Toomey phrases it, it is important to know who to reach out to in any given situation. She frequently works with SENASICA, building important contacts.

Another milestone involved Toomey speaking at the United Nations’ World Food Safety Day observance with local Mexican officials on June 7, 2023. Toomey represented FSIS on international matters that have an impact on food safety. Attending such events allows Toomey to build what she calls “relationships of trust.” She believes it is important to be open, transparent and a good ally with our neighbors to achieve diplomatic success.

Toomey is proud of her work because she feels like she is making a difference both domestically and internationally. Said Toomey, “FSIS’ personnel enable me to be successful in protecting public health. I have had the privilege of working with extremely knowledgeable and kind people at FSIS, from excellent supervisors to all my esteemed colleagues in OIC and all other program areas that have mentored and guided me in successfully representing the agency at an international level.”

Training

“FSIS empowers me with the necessary training, tools and approaches to be successful,” said Toomey. In particular, she feels Inspection Methods (IM) training was most helpful because her exposure to FSIS while working in OGC was very focused on regulations. IM provided a different perspective.

Toomey also benefitted from a course she took that was provided by the Mexican Embassy. The program explained the country’s politics, history, culture and government. “I need to make and carry out informed decisions that protect public health and promote food safety. I have been able to participate in Mexican study programs, which has helped me better understand our foreign counterparts and how to best reach positive results in our agricultural relationship.” In addition to building current relationships, Toomey receives support from her previous relationships and mentors, who provide her with frequent support.

Toomey’s Dream Job

Both of Toomey’s parents were civil servants — her father was a New York City firefighter, and her mother is the principal of a school in Brooklyn, New York — and Toomey is proud to continue their legacy of service. “As an attorney in the federal government, I am able to use my skills to help protect public health and serve my nation. I can get justice without compromising any values, and I am honored and privileged to be in the position. It is my dream job,” said Toomey.

A typical workday for Toomey may involve meeting with foreign government officials, non-government organizations, international organizations or industry organizations, resolving any issues through diplomacy by being trustworthy and reliable but firm.

Toomey first learned of FSIS when she worked in OGC where she worked on many international issues, mainly for APHIS. Said Toomey, “My work with APHIS brought me to Mexico many times to negotiate and conclude international agreements and work on bilateral trade issues. This position allows me to marry the skills and expertise I developed during my years at OGC, both in international affairs and representing FSIS in various administrative and federal cases.” Toomey credits much of her success to her current supervisors. Said Toomey, “They have all taught me so much about how to be successful in this position and continuously provide great support.”

“Ciarra’s combination of intelligence, a solutions-oriented and collaborative approach to work, and friendly and engaging personality, make her perfect to direct our office in Mexico City and represent FSIS in Mexico,” said Catlin.

Education

While completing her Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy, politics and law at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Toomey had the opportunity to study abroad in Valencia, Spain. Shortly after graduating in 2004, she enrolled in both the Syracuse University College of Law, where she studied abroad in Strasbourg, France and Hong Kong, and in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where she studied abroad in Macau, China and London, England.

In 2007, she graduated with a Juris Doctor degree and a Master of Arts degree in international relations. Toomey puts all three of her degrees to good use when teaching International Law at the George Washington University, where she has lectured virtually part-time since 2008.

Outside of Work

When she is not at work helping to ensure food safety, Toomey enjoys traveling, reading, dancing and going to the theater. She also enjoys spending time with her young son. Her career move to Mexico City has afforded them the opportunity to travel to different destinations throughout Mexico. They continue to appreciate and learn about Mexican culture and look forward to further exploring the country.

Editor’s note: Ciarra Toomey retired shortly after giving this interview, which was recently released by the USDA.

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