The story of a two-day computer system failure within the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month has been exaggerated by The New York Times and does not accurately represent the state of meat inspection during system downtime, according to the inspection administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
From the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 8, until Saturday morning on Aug. 10, a computer system that networks inspectors at all of the meatpacking and processing plants across the country went down due to a technical error. 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.
When the system went down, inspectors were forced to revert to using a paper system for documenting sample collection and other tasks, but otherwise went about their normal inspection routines, said Al Almanza, administrator of the USDA’s inspection service, which oversees food safety inspectors in all 6,500 meat facilities in the U.S.
On Saturday, The New York Times published an article entitled, “Shipping Continued After Computer Inspection System Failed at Meat Plants,” which stated that the two-day shutdown put “at risk millions of pounds of beef, poultry, pork and lamb that had left the plants before workers could collect samples to check for E. coli bacteria and other contaminants.”
Almanza said the suggestion that consumers were put at additional risk is “entirely false.”
“I can tell you with 110 percent certainty that no contaminated product left a facility while the system was down,” Almanza told Food Safety News.
Almanza, a source for the NYT article, 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 said.
During the downtime, nothing changed with regard to inspectors’ abilities to stop production lines if they observed any violations or had other concerns.
Sample collection, the aspect of inspection most impacted by the system failure, is one technique among many that the inspection service uses to monitor meat coming off production lines. But even the sample-collection process was only set back due to the shutdown, not completely sidelined, according to USDA spokesman Adam Tarr.
“It is a fact that there were fewer samples taken [during the downtime],” Tarr said. “But inspectors know how to take samples without PHIS. It’s more labor-intensive, no doubt about it, but sampling goes on without it.”
It’s worth noting that not every lot of meat in production gets selected for sampling when PHIS is operational. Every day, meat ships to consumers without being sampled, and Tarr said that suggesting the food supply was put at risk because fewer samples were collected over the two-day period is disingenuous.
USDA inspectors’ union president Stan Painter told the NYT that, due to the shutdown, “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.”
Tarr said he was not sure if Painter was referring to management at the regional or federal level, but that there are procedures in place in the event inspectors can’t access PHIS. Though this was the first time PHIS suffered a system-wide shutdown since its implementation in 2011, Tarr said that it’s not unusual for inspectors in rural areas without strong Internet support to perform their job without access to the computer system.
Almanza reiterated that most inspectors learned the job long before PHIS existed. He acknowledged that inspectors complained about system errors, but he said the USDA is working to improve it and that he hoped it would continue to streamline inspectors’ work process.
In an interview with Food Safety News last year, Almanza lauded PHIS, calling it “one of the most important things we’ve done for our field inspectors.” When it works, the system allows inspectors to instantly access data on the performance of the plant they’re inspecting.
At a town hall meeting with 20 inspectors Monday morning, Almanza said he asked if anyone had read The New York Times article suggesting meat might be at risk because the computer system went down.
“They started laughing,” he said.
Speaking to Food Safety News, another USDA spokesperson drew up a comparison to the NYT’s own technological problems:
“The New York Times’ Website was down not too long ago,” she said. “That didn’t mean the reporters just packed up and went home for the day.”© Food Safety News