A conversation with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Administrator Al Almanza on the agency’s recently-launched Public Health Information System, which centralizes plant inspection data and makes it accessible in real time.

Q: How is the Public Health Information System (PHIS) an advance over the old system?

A: This is one of the most important things we’ve done for our field inspectors. We’re able to provide inspectors the tools to perform their daily tasks and give them the ability access the information that they are putting into the system in real time. They are able to act on that information in real time – that’s what public health and food safety is all about, it’s about being proactive rather than reactive.

I still have a lot of friends who are inspectors and they are excited about this because they no longer have to rely on their front line supervisors or their district office for data mining. They’re able to access the plant data in real time. They can look at what’s occurring in an establishment when they rotate in or when they substitute for someone in an establishment. This was a rather difficult thing to do with our former system, PBIS [Performance Based Inspection System].

Q: Can you give an example of a task that would be easier under PHIS?

A: You could pick any task. If an inspector is covering three or four plants, they rotate every quarter. Previously, the incoming inspector had no data to be able to tell how the plant was performing, other than noncompliance reports. Under PHIS, because the system is built by the establishment, inspectors can see how the plant is performing. For example, under PBIS the only information that was recorded in the tasks schedule was NR (noncompliance reports). Under PHIS, it’s whatever the inspector observes. It’s much more inclusive of what the establishment is doing.

Q: Now that it’s up and running, what are you learning? Is there anything that has been surprising or challenging? I have heard in some areas inspectors have had trouble connecting to the system.

A: We’re learning a lot. It was such a huge, huge undertaking. One of the things that has happened is that our sampling rate has gone up from what it was under PBIS. I think that’s a positive thing.

I’ve asked my team to develop the disconnected state and address the issues so that, in areas where there are problems with connectivity, inspection personnel can document their findings while disconnected from the internet.

[Part of the problem is lack of wireless internet service in certain rural areas.]

Q: So what is the data telling you so far? Will we eventually see more detailed data reported publicly?

A: We are getting a ton of data. One of the things that we’ve done is that we’ve signed an MOU with CDC and with APHIS. Some of the data sharing is going to help us coordinate more efficiently during outbreak investigations with CDC. With APHIS, some of the data that’s going to help them will be looking at the reasons for the condemnation of animals. They can specifically track them to where they came from.

I know we’re going to have to take a look at the number of data analysts we have because we’re going to have a lot of data to analyze.

I am personally very excited about the capabilities of this system. If inspection personnel are able to make decisions based on the data they are documenting on a daily basis, that puts us in the position where we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing with food safety and public health — being more proactive rather than reactive.

Now everything an inspector does within a plant is captured within a single system. Before there were tasks that were not captured in PBIS, like export or sampling activities. Under PHIS, everything is fed into the same data stream so we can capture trends that may be occurring.

Q: How would PHIS help during a foodborne illness outbreak?

A: As inspectors are entering the tasks they perform, the samples they take, etc. that is being captured and being reflected in real time, and we can pull that information up to the minute. Under PBIS, it is a passive system where you simply enter data. If there was an outbreak, you would have to go back and look at what was happening within an establishment during a period of time. Under PBIS, we’d have to data mine the records and that could take us 2-3 weeks and that is being a bit conservative.

Under PHIS, it’s just a matter of looking at the time frame when the suspected product was produced and generating data from the plant or plants. You can cross reference if and when products are being mixed as well. It’s a much more dynamic system to be able to retrieve that type of information.

Q: Let’s say you find E. coli O157 in ground product. Is this system going to help with traceback? Can you look at all the components that went into that product and look up supply chain to figure out where the contamination happened?

A: Down the road, that’s my vision for it. My vision for PHIS is this: If a plant is involved in a situation where their product has O157:H7, and we find out that plant X is responsible for this, down the road, my vision is that we’re able track who is supplying that establishment, whether it’s a live animal and/or boxed product. That way, as soon as that positive pops we can look and see who else they supplied within that same supply window. If plant X has the same supplier as plant Y, then we can direct sampling at plant Y during the same window. That will prevent that product from ever reaching commerce. That’s my vision for how effective PHIS can be down the road.

Q: So how far away is FSIS from being able to do that? I know there are some IT issues to work out, but are we looking at a year, two years, five years?

A: I’m optimistic, but I hope that we’re able to do that within a year to 18 months. I’m not looking at five years down the road.

Q: How much did the update cost? Did you come in under budget?

A: I know you’re looking for a specific number, and I’d like to give you a specific number, but a lot of the costs are ongoing infrastructure costs. We’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million for the update, but we’ve spent additional money on other things. But we would have spent more money if we would have kept PBIS because it was becoming a very, very costly system to maintain.

Q: Down the road, will companies be able to look at anonymous data so that they can compare themselves to other plants?

A: We don’t have currently have that in our plan. But we are developing corporate access to that information – a company would be able to look at all of their establishments and see how they compare with each other. Data.gov will also have some of this information posted on it.

This Q&A has been edited for length and readability.