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USDA Switching to New Plant Data Inspection System

Long in the making, the start-up date for USDA’s new Public Health Information System (PHIS) is now just two weeks away on May 29.  It will replace the Performance Based Inspection System at all regulated USDA establishments and for all meat and poultry imports and exports.

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety, has hailed the coming of PHIS as a method of “arming our inspectors with a powerful tool, on the ground, to carry out USDA’s food safety mission more effectively.”   


Hagen says the new single database designed to gather, collate and use all data collected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS’s) entire inspection regime is not just a change out in the IT system, but an entirely new inspection infrastructure.

That new infrastructure includes more discretion for FSIS inspectors as they go about their daily work. The old Performance Based Inspection System apparently spit out a list of “scheduled” tasks for inspectors to accomplish each day.   

The new PHIS produces daily calendars for inspectors with suggestions based on the entire establishment data, which is readily available.

Individual inspectors will be able to decide when to perform a task, according to attorney Dennis J. Johnson with the Washington D.C. law firm of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC.  Johnson, an expert in food safety and regulation, has written on numerous occasions about the PHIS ramp-up for The National Provisioner, a meat and poultry processing industry journal.

According to Johnson, PHIS will result in more thorough documentation of regulatory violations because it will generate a “pick list” for inspectors to use in recording the reasons behind their actions.

The new PHIS is going to put the plant’s entire profile at the fingertips of inspectors, including non-compliance records, appeals, Food Safety Assessment reports, test results, recall actions, memorandums from interviews, and other information like the establishment’s entire Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points Plan (HACCP).

“The mere accumulation of damaging data is valueless if FSIS is unwilling to act upon it, ” said agency critic and small plant advocate John Munsell in a PHIS review published last year in Food Safety News.  Munsell does see the new system as “dynamic” with the potential for accountable enforcement actions, ending what he has argued is the “carte blanche” authority by ranking FSIS officials.

Domestic establishments are first in line for using PHIS, but USDA has already notified foreign governments and importers of the coming change to the new data system.  May 29 is also the day all FSIS import regions are scheduled to make the switch.

Hagen says PHIS is a tool for better protecting public health, and that its success in more than 6,000 establishments regulated by USDA will depend upon the inspectors themselves.

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