- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2013

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has hailed its new automated inspection system as a “data-driven” approach to protecting the nation’s food supply, but inspectors say systematic failures keep them stuck in front of office computers while potential public health hazards go unchecked.

“With as much time that gets wasted sitting in front of our computers trying to get a non-functional inspection system to work properly, how many public health issues do YOU predict NOW go unaddressed?” one inspector and local union official from Iowa wrote last year, according to USDA correspondence obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act.

“It’s hard to tag tainted meat during your 1/2 hour log on and the 14 hours you spend trying to write one SPS NR. Don’t get me wrong, I really dig the elevator tunes I get to listen to while out in the plant product is getting contaminated then packaged and shipped to consumers!!!”

The memo refers to a “non-compliance record” (NR) on the department’s “sanitation performance standards” (SPS).

Stan Painter, an inspector and the head of a national union representing government food inspectors, said the problems are widespread.

“It’s something we’ve continued to bring up at national meetings,” he said, referring to troubles with the automated system. “The agency continues to spend good money after bad.”

Brian Mabry, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, defended the system, which was implemented last year. He said USDA officials continue to make improvements to the system and “resolve issues as they arise and are reported back by our inspection workforce.”

“Getting a system up and running successfully takes time,” Mr. Mabry said. “However, we are starting to see the system’s advantages to our day-to-day operations aimed at protecting public health.

“It’s no secret that there were some bumps along the way, especially when we launched in 2011. But through the combined efforts of our dedicated employees and their valuable feedback, we worked through them together to improve the system and completed national domestic implementation in January 2012.”

That employee feedback, according to the records obtained by The Times, included statements such as, “How stupid & worthless do you think we look to the regulated industry giving them excuses such as ‘our computerized inspection system is down again’???????”

Questions also were raised about whether the USDA would “file charges against the clowns” who designed the system and whether the agency had “given any thought to paying hazardous duty pay for sitting around all day in front of computers gaining weight and getting high blood pressure dealing with all the errors in PHIS,” a reference to the Public Health Information System.

Nonetheless, the system has been repeatedly and publicly hailed by top officials inside the USDA, including Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack, who was governor of Iowa.

“The Public Health Information System is an easily accessible, up-to-date repository for all key data,” Mr. Vilsack said in a 2011 speech to the International Association for Food Protection.

“For staff in our Washington, D.C., headquarters and — just as importantly — for our thousands of inspection personnel in production facilities across the country, this system is improving our capacity to analyze data to spot trouble and provide feedback about emerging public health threats.

“When the system is fully implemented, it will allow us to access information from other public health agencies, to identify risks and trends before they harm the public, and to make decisions to protect consumers from unsafe food.”

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.