Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary of Food Safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote a letter to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) last week regarding DeLauro’s concerns over a reportedly problematic computer network used by USDA meat inspectors. The letter came as a response to an open letter DeLauro wrote to Hagen on Aug. 23 about problems with USDA’s Public Health Information System (PHIS). Established by USDA in 2011, the PHIS is an electronic record-keeping computer network intended to coordinate data for USDA inspectors across the country. PHIS came under heightened scrutiny in August when The New York Times published an article on the computer network’s shortcomings and the fact that inspectors did not halt the shipment of meat despite the computer system undergoing an error-based shutdown for two days between Aug. 8 and 10. USDA’s inspection administrator Al Almanza rejected the Times’ suggestion that the network failure jeopardized the safety of the nation’s meat supply, saying that inspectors still do their jobs whether or not the computer network is functional. At the same time, Food and Water Watch’s Tony Corbo took the opportunity to discuss the deficiencies of the system, pointing out that the Government Accountability Office considers it one of the government’s “troubled IT systems.” In her letter to DeLauro last week, Hagen wrote, “From late August 8 to early August 10, no contaminated product left a facility while the system was down, and food safety was not compromised.” Inspectors are trained to perform their inspections regardless of whether or not PHIS is operational, Hagen continued. “PHIS itself neither inspects nor prohibits the inspection of food,” she said. The program does assist inspectors in doing their jobs, and a system failure may give them a headache when having to switch to paper forms, but it does not prevent them from enforcing their authority in the processing facility. “While PHIS being inaccessible did result in the collection of fewer samples, this occurred for a brief period of time and did not impact food safety because other inspection tasks continued uninterrupted,” Hagen stated. “FSIS laboratories have standard operating procedures in place to allow for sample receipt, analysis, and reporting to take place should PHIS be unavailable.” In DeLauro’s initial letter to Hagen, the Congresswoman asked USDA to provide an analysis of problems with the system, the impact on food safety and steps taken to remedy these problems, including those related to software and connectivity. “The multitude of problems with the PHIS include, among others, deficient software, system errors, outages, high maintenance needs, and loss of connectivity,” DeLauro wrote. In her response, Hagen stated that, during the three months preceding the August incident, the system was operational more than 99.9 percent of the time. “For the rare instances when PHIS is unavailable, FSIS inspectors are expected to perform verification procedures and document results, and enter those results into PHIS when the system becomes operational,” Hagen wrote.