Dr. Amy Kircher '97 is on the front line of defending our global food supply.
Americans today enjoy a greater variety and availability of foods – fresh fruits and vegetables in winter, for instance – thanks to a global food supply network.
It is 1997 graduate Amy (Schroeder) Kircher's job to see that this food supply is safe for consumers and poses no threat to the security of our country. It's a big job.
Kircher, who has a doctorate in public health, is director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota. It's one of 12 Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence. Other centers – all located at major universities – study subjects like responses to terrorism, animal disease defense, catastrophic event response or environment security.
Kircher leads and coordinates a consortium of experts throughout the United States who defend the food system through research and education. The main emphasis of her work includes identification and warning of food disruptions through data analysis.
"It's a complicated task," says Kircher. "Our food comes from a complex series of systems of global productions and rapid transportation. Food grown in one place might be mixed with products from somewhere else, so following the supply chain is a challenge."
Before coming to the University of Minnesota in 2011, Kircher held epidemiologist positions at NORAD – the U.S. Northern Command and with the Air Force where she worked on health informatics, biosurveillance and data analytics. She was part of the response effort in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina and 2009 with the H1N1 worldwide flu pandemic.
In her current role, Kircher watches for three basic threats to the nation's food supply: terrorism, people who are motivated to make money by hurting the system, or disgruntled employees out to ruin a brand.
"I look to identify trends and pattern, and then warn of possible disruptions in the system," she says.
Kircher's research shows there is evidence of "bad actors" contaminating food. Plots have been uncovered to use food as a delivery mechanism for weapons of mass destruction, and economically motivated adulteration is a growing concern.
"These threats illuminate the need to stay ever vigilant, and be able to rapidly respond," she says. "We can limit our exposure to terrorism or disaster by choosing not to fly or live near a nuclear power plant, but we can't opt out of eating because food is necessary for survival."
Kircher's path to this prominent role began on her family's 50-cow dairy farm near Glenwood, Minn., where she participated in all the activities small towns are known for – running for water carnival royalty, playing high school volleyball and basketball, singing in the choir. A favorite teacher helped her prepare a speech for a scholarship competition, and today she gratefully relies on that experience for the numerous presentations she must make to military, government and industry officials.
"If I know the material, I can speak with confidence to anybody," she says.
Intent on becoming a doctor, Kircher grew frustrated by out-of-sequence science classes and labs at another college. While visiting friends at Concordia, she discovered she could stay on track academically with majors in biology and health.
After she transferred, her career sights were altered by events on campus.
One epiphany came after pausing to read Concordia's mission statement carved into a rock near Lorentzsen Hall.
"It said to me, 'take your talents and what you've learned, and go forth and serve.' I liked the emphasis on going into the world to do good things," says Kircher. "It spoke to me. It was really my personal orientation to Concordia because I missed my freshman year."
Another revelation came while listening to a talk by Dr. Michael Osterholm, then the Minnesota state epidemiologist, and a prominent public health scientist who has become a nationally recognized biosecurity expert.
"He has the ability to convey to an audience a problem, the concern and the appropriate action," says Kircher. "I thought, 'That's it! That's what I want to do.' From Mike I found a new passion. Mike gets you excited about things and I now work with him."
Kircher soon realized she could help many people by working in the broader area of public health. As a physician, she could only treat one patient at a time.
"Those experiences, and the influence of faculty who always were ready to listen and offer advice, were transformative for me," she says. Kircher credits Dr. Larry Papenfuss, who taught health courses at the time, with opening new perspectives for her.
"Amy was my advisee and we formed a mentoring relationship," says Papenfuss. "What set her apart was her ability to take on a rigorous academic load. Amy has a keenness of thought, and a sense of confidence and independence. She is assertive while also being open to being directed. She's certainly among the brightest I've encountered."
Papenfuss helped her land a summer internship at the University of New Mexico and recommended the master's program in public health at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. Both were schools where Papenfuss had done his graduate work. Kircher completed her doctorate in public health at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.
Papenfuss believes that Concordia opened a wider world for Kircher and gave her the belief that she could do whatever she set her mind to.
"You recognize that it started at Concordia with the benefits of the liberal arts," he says. "Today Amy's career crosses boundaries because of her background in biology, public health, nutrition and political science."
There were formative Cobber moments, too. During a pickup basketball game in Olson Forum, she met Jon Kircher '97, a history and business major from Olivia, Minn. In the spring of their senior year, Jon proposed to Amy under the campanile. They are now the parents of two boys and a girl. Jon Kircher has worked at Wells Fargo since graduating and is a vice president and senior private banker at the St. Paul bank.
Within days of accepting her first professional job with the Air Force as an epidemiologist, Kircher was on a base in San Antonio. It could well have been a world away.
"Public health work I knew," says Kircher. "But working for the military was completely unknown to me. I'd worked in the systems before, but the military was a new culture."
She called her dad after her first day on the job and asked him to explain military structure and rank. And for the first six months, her boss, a colonel, translated the meaning of each acronym she encountered.
"What a gift that was," says Kircher. "He was so careful and thorough, he wanted me to understand everything. It gave me a sense of how precise things need to be in a big organization like the military."
Kircher worked in preventive medicine, doing data analysis and providing accurate information to the decision makers, like doctors, so they could take better care of people.
"I'm very proud of my years working for the Air Force," she says. "I have an incredible appreciation for what the men and women of this country volunteer for to protect our freedom."
In 2003 she joined NORAD – the Northern Command, rotating between offices at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the famous nuclear bunker excavated from solid granite at Sheyenne Mountain.
"We were always 'on' there. Whether it was a training exercise or an event, we were constantly responding to the unexpected. It was something new every day. I never envisioned I'd ever be doing this," Kircher says. "It's an exciting place to be."
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Kircher was on the medical watch desk with three phones ringing simultaneously, suddenly in real-time, crisis operation.
"In a situation like that, you do what's necessary to save lives," she says. "You remember your training, ask for help, and you respond. The military moves and functions as a team. It knows how to work. The military style is to believe you're doing the right thing, with the right people, at the right time, to save lives and protect our homeland."
Kircher sent in medics to set up field hospitals, helped locate special helicopters fitted to transport at-risk babies in incubators, and even moved a school of dolphins to safety one day.
"Believe it or not, there's a way to do that," she says.
Kircher often has had to reach back and utilize her communication skills. She recalls supporting a four-star admiral during a video teleconference about responding to a pandemic. When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld kept asking questions the admiral couldn’t answer, the admiral told Rumsfeld, "My epidemiologist is right here, let's ask Amy."
And so Kircher stepped up to brief the defense secretary.
She also spent 20 minutes with President George W. Bush when he toured the command center after Hurricane Rita.
"He wanted to know about bird flu, which was a question I wasn't anticipating," says Kircher. "He was very curious about how many infections had been reported. You could see he felt very comfortable being in the secure command area. He was easy to talk to."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million new cases of food-related illness (resulting in 5,000 deaths) occur in the United States each year. Data reveals that health-related costs from food-borne illness in the U.S. are now more than $152 billion annually.
"That is completely unacceptable," she says.
Consider the cheeseburger, a staple of fast food restaurants. Dozens of ingredients are used to bake and preserve the buns, make sauces, and supply condiments. The ingredients in a typical burger can come from as many as 80 countries. Beef can come from 10 countries, wheat from as many as 15, and sauce and condiment ingredients from more than 50 countries.
With that one example, monitoring such a complex food system is a daunting task. The solution involves prediction through data analysis, timely intervention and education.
"We understand the food supply networks," says Kircher. "We assess risks and close gaps where we find them. We study, predict, inspect and pull things out of commerce so they don't enter the supply system. We also provide awareness of what to look for. We make strides every day to be better."
The most troublesome items are huge batches of ingredients, anything mixed or blended or that is transported in bulk like honey, olive oil and spices – especially pepper. Mislabeled fish or substituted species is a continual problem. High value items like infant formula are showing up as substandard or contaminated.
One suspect supplier has been China, a high-volume producer of low-cost products. But Kircher is encouraged by recent admission by Chinese officials that the country has a cultural problem of producing fake or adulterated products. Fearing that worldwide consumers will reject their products, Chinese officials have signed an agreement with the U.S. to more closely regulate their manufacture and supply networks.
"The Chinese know they have a pervasive problem and they are taking visible measures toward changing their culture," says Kircher. "It's a promising step in the right direction."
Kircher knows it's hard for individual consumers to know where food comes from because others must do their jobs before products ever appear on grocery shelves. But she offers some common sense advice: Buy brands you know, buy where you know food is grown (bananas don't grow in Canada), and pay the right amount for food – if it's too cheap, it might not be real.
Personally, Kircher avoids sprouts ("they can never be clean enough") and she doesn't like raw oysters.
The biggest fear is using food as a weapon. It doesn't take a large dose of toxic material to affect a large number of people. Twelve countries have reported contamination events since 2008 from agents like arsenic, cyanide, rat poison, and various herbicides, insecticides and pesticides.
Documents seized by CIA agents in Afghanistan indicate interest by Al-Qaeda in food terrorism by using small amounts of easily transported cyanide salts to contaminate food and water supplies.
An example of how food is monitored comes from Thailand, the world's number one exporter of shrimp. In 2011, most of the country flooded and the year's shrimp harvest was lost. Importers expected to see a decrease in shrimp availability, but it never happened. Adulterated shrimp from somewhere else entered the global market, and Homeland Security promptly warned regulators and food companies.
Kircher's task is to analyze this complex information, probe suspected threats by known "bad actors" and worry about potential casualties.
"Then at the end of the day, I go home, make dinner and be a mom," she says. "You have to be able to separate home life from work life, or these worries will absolutely consume you."
Originally published in the Spring 2014 Concordia Magazine