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The department has spent millions of dollars on contractors deploying the system and training employees, according to federal purchasing records. There is no indication in the documents provided to The Times that the technical problems with the automated system led directly to specific food safety lapses.

Although union officials can’t point to any specific instances, Mr. Painter said, “It stands to reason that if the cop is not on the beat, then consumers are not being protected.”

The USDA’s inspector general’s office told Congress in its latest semiannual report to lawmakers that the watchdog office is working on an audit to see how well the department has implemented the system.

In a memo last summer to Mr. Vilsack outlining the USDA’s biggest challenges, the inspector general noted that while the automated information system should help the agency make better use of inspectors’ time in slaughter plants, inspector staffing levels remain a concern.

Although recalls on products such as beef and peanuts have generated significant publicity over the years, the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service regularly discloses recall notices and posts the information on its website.

In January alone, the department released recall notices for products from manufacturers of frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, and marinated pork and chicken.