Posted August 21, 2013

Earlier this month a computer system, which networks inspectors at all of the meatpacking and processing plants across the country, failed for a period of about two days. 

The New York Times reported that the two-day computer system failure allowed millions of pounds of beef, poultry, pork and lamb to leave the plants “before workers could collect samples to check for E.coli bacteria and other contaminants.”  Stan Painter, a federal inspector in Crossville, Ala. said, “Management sent out a memo saying to reschedule the sampling of meat” but “in most cases that meat is now gone.  We can’t inspect product that went out the door when the system was down.”
The New York Times article, available here, also cited critics of the new IT system:  Inspectors “say the nationwide failure of the computer system early this month – along with other recent breakdowns – undermine the department’s assertions that the new technology has improved the safety of the nation’s meat.”  A March report by the USDA’s inspector general “found that glitches with the new computer system led to problems with meat sampling at 18 plants last year”, including improperly sampling 100 million pounds of ground beef and beef products.
According to a Food Safety News article, available here, the inspection administrator for USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) said that the New York Times article was “exaggerated” and “did not accurately represent the state of meat inspection during the system downtime.”  The system, “known to inspectors as the Public Health Information System, or PHIS, automates for inspectors the assigning of tasks such as pre-operation sanitation and the collection of meat samples for laboratory testing.” 
Al Almanza, administrator of USDA’s inspection service told Food Safety News that the suggestion that consumers were put at risk is “entirely false.”  Almanza “said that inspectors continue to perform all of their normal tasks in the event of a computer system failure.  They monitor production lines, ensure that operations are following hazard analysis plans and physically inspect every carcass that comes through the door – the usual.”  He stated that during this time, “nothing changed with regard to inspectors’ abilities to stop production lines if they observed any violations or had other concerns.”
USDA spokesman Adam Tarr said that sample collection, “the aspect of inspection most impacted by the system failure, is one technique among many that the inspection service uses” and “this process was only set back due to the shutdown, not completely sidelined.”  Tarr said that “fewer samples” were taken during the downtime, but “suggesting that the food supply was put at risk because fewer samples were collected over the two day period is disingenuous.”