Two examples showing the benefits and challenges of agencies moving from paper-based to digital systems have been published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The first covers how the country of Georgia developed a digital system for food control data.

The National Food Agency used to receive control results from the regions on spreadsheets and text files. Collection of the data was ineffective, cumbersome, and prone to mistakes. Authorities experienced problems receiving timely data throughout the supply chain, including information on registrations of food businesses, inspection results, and other relevant food safety data. This impacted the understanding of Georgia’s food safety situation and food control development.

A digital system to modernize data acquisition began in 2017 in the capital, Tbilisi, and has since expanded to the whole country. It is being further developed to include more information from the food chain, permitting detailed analyses of food safety and food control effectiveness.

Need to evolve systems
Food control inspectors were equipped with portable tablets and printers, which permitted onsite electronic documentation of the inspection results, handing over a printout to the business and instant data transfer to the National Food Agency’s online database.

The software program scores businesses based on data, including food type, activity, and compliance history. It also contributes to risk-based planning of food control activities.

Digital systems allow real-time assessment of food safety compliance levels, can help establish baselines and trend analyses, and enable targeted actions to respond to food control results. A well-functioning system can provide results from several food safety aspects and show where there is room for improvement.

Georgia decided in 2015 to develop a digital system because of obstacles in registering food firms, shortcomings in handling control data, and a lack of an overall view of the food safety situation in the country. The first task was identifying active food companies from different authority registers to include them in the National Food Agency’s online database.

Some issues include financing the development of the digital system. As the program is not optimal for expanding data collection to include all food control data, it must be upgraded. While the system could meet initial objectives, the need for advanced data collection meant the software was not as flexible and helpful as required. Building such a system is a complex and time-consuming task. Step-by-step integration allows testing of features and more effective improvement.

Authorities want to continue using and developing the system, but future upgrades depend on available resources. Foodborne outbreak data and incidence of infections will be included as soon as the IT program and resources allow. Sampling data has already been collected, but laboratory results have not yet been integrated into the system.

Barcelona’s experience moving from paper to digital
The second example is from the Public Health Agency of Barcelona (ASPB). The agency found previous paper-based inspection procedures lacked harmonization and was leading to inefficiencies and inconsistencies, so it moved to a digital system in 2021 for onsite inspections of retail sites.

The past system didn’t ensure that officers assessed the same aspects in each inspection or took the same enforcement measures in equivalent risk situations. The digital inspection tool enables non-compliance collection, information about official samples taken for laboratory analysis, and pictures to be attached to inspection reports. It also increases the consistency of the process.

Results of inspections are shared with food businesses in a standardized format, with deadlines to correct any non-compliance. Inspection results are stored in the cloud-based servers of the ASPB and further analyzed for better monitoring and continuous improvement of the control system.

The current checklist considers up to 228 non-compliances in four areas. The system offers binary options to assess compliance, and officers cannot proceed with the inspection until all non-compliances are marked as detected or undetected. Non-compliances are scored based on risk, and an algorithm calculates a compliance score for each section.

Development of the digital tool took time and included pilot and validation tests. A lack of smartphones to support the digital tools and internet connection in food establishments caused problems, but the application was updated so it could also be used offline. It must also be flexible to adapt to future food safety law amendments.

Some officers were not confident using digital tools. The ASPB distributed educational material among officers, simulated inspections, offered expert support during inspections, and promoted informal feedback. The agency also met with all food business associations in Barcelona to explain the revised inspection process. Several other local authorities have adopted the digital inspection tool, which is being expanded to other provinces of Catalonia.

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