Fresh off her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, Aline Tezcucano went to a job interview with a big food company. She struggled to answer their technical questions about food safety. Disappointed, she went home and started studying.
Years later, food safety is what she does.
Aline is a veteran policy specialist with the province, specializing in food safety and animal health and welfare. She lives with her partner and young son in Winnipeg.
She’s part of a virtual emergency operations centre in her division of Manitoba Agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic and said her schedule changes daily — sometimes hourly. She spoke to the Co-operator via email. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: What is your job with Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development?
ANSWER: I am a policy specialist who has been with the ministry for 14 years. My work contributes to ensuring food safety along with animal health and animal welfare in the province.
In particular, my areas of expertise include food safety, food processing, research and analysis related to the development of legislation, educational materials, and work in traceability, food inspection, animal welfare and animal health. I also participate with committees involved in food safety and regulatory accountability, leading various projects at the national level.
QUESTION: What does your job contribute to agriculture?
ANSWER: My job contributes to the agricultural sector by conducting research and analysis in several topics used for the development of proposals or projects that support the animal health and welfare and food safety programs of the ministry.
Some of the work I do aims to explain to the public the interpretation of complex regulations. I also provide assistance for the development of regulations, processes, risk assessments, educational and training materials. I have written over 80 technical documents that are available on the food safety website with solid information for the food-processing industry.
My last web project involved leading the revamp of our Veterinary Diagnostic Services laboratory which gave me the opportunity to mentor a new student talent under my supervision and to connect with a new staff member. Being provided with the opportunity to help building capacity for the future is an opportunity I highly treasure.
QUESTION: Where did you grow up? What were your ties to agriculture and food when you were young?
ANSWER: I was born and raised in Mexico City. My ties to agriculture started during my teen’s summer holidays spent at the countryside in a town called Iramuco, located in the state of Guanajuato. I was exposed to primary agriculture by helping in different chores like feeding horses, pigs and chickens, gathering eggs, filling up feeders, brushing animals, etc.
Also, I got to learn from scratch some food-processing techniques like cheese, butter, bread and tortilla making. This sparked my curiosity in learning about the chemistry behind food processing, so I decided to study biochemical engineering, with a focus in food science.
QUESTION: What have your areas of research been?
ANSWER: My PhD research project studied the enzymatic modification of the major milk proteins (caseins) at the molecular level to decrease allergenicity.
I chose that topic because bovine milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies and caseins appear to be the major allergens responsible for this. Modifying a protein using a biological method is preferred than using a chemical method, in particular if these proteins will find an application as a food ingredient. In the food safety world, food allergens are an important topic. My research work was recognized with two awards in 2005 and 2006 by the Dairy Farmers of Canada for its significant contributions to the Canadian dairy industry.
QUESTION: What brought you to Manitoba?
ANSWER: I came to Manitoba because I got my present job. It was supposed to be a two-year term that with time evolved into a permanent position. For eight years, my home office was in Morris.
Integrating into a new country was not an easy task, as I had to deal with studying new materials in a different language, learning about new cultures, solitude at times until I made friends that became my new family.
QUESTION: What led you to working in animal health and animal welfare?
ANSWER: After working with the Manitoba food-processing industry for over eight years, I applied for a program and planning analyst position and started to work under the direction of our provincial chief veterinary officer.
This position evolved rapidly into a policy specialist as I was given the opportunity to lead several projects with the support of subject matter experts in animal health and welfare. My skills set allowed me to rapidly learn from these two fascinating fields and to build a bridge with food safety.
QUESTION: What is most rewarding about your job?
ANSWER: My job is very dynamic and I get to interact with many colleagues within my department, other departments and jurisdictions by leading diverse projects. When I get a task assigned, I know that there is a high level of trust which motivates me to complete it in an efficient approach.
I feel that I have a high level of responsibility as a public servant and job satisfaction is one of my key drivers to deliver results that will benefit internally my workplace or externally our clients. I am also very fortunate to be able to maintain engagement with my professional association, the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology, in a leadership role. This allows me to stay actively connected with food science and academia.
QUESTION: What was one of your proudest moments from your current job?
ANSWER: One of my proudest moments has been to contribute to the success of a few entrepreneurs. I remember helping a small-scale operation that started from bringing a recipe all the way from their kitchen into the market. I provided technical assistance to identify process controls and food safety practices, plus guiding them to successfully receive funding for developing their food safety and traceability programs.
It was a hard-working family who brought their product to high standards and were able to position it into the large retailers and to ship it to other provinces. They even brought their product all the way to Japan.
QUESTION: You’ve been very involved in Mexican cultural organizations in Manitoba. Why is this important to you?
ANSWER: In 2008, I joined the Mex Y Can Association of Manitoba Inc. as a volunteer and rapidly became a community leader as part of the board of directors. I was the president for four years. I have also been involved with the Mexican Pavilion at Folklorama for many years as an instrumental part of its planning and execution. Our pavilion has become one of the largest at Folklorama.
Doing all this volunteer work is important for me to showcase the richness of Mexican culture, bring together my community and making a meaningful contribution to a better society.
I also like to bring food safety education to the community. A few years ago, I led a project along with another food safety colleague and Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living to develop a food safety hands-on training program targeted to the Folklorama volunteers in charge of the kitchen operations. This program introduced record-keeping of the most important food safety practices like temperature checks while cooking and holding food before service, personal hygiene practices, and sanitation, among others.