Two apps assist USDA food safety inspectors

Two apps assist USDA food safety inspectors

Notes from field investigators go from their notebook PCs to main database via Internet

The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service safeguards America's food supply by fighting pests and diseases. The agency improved that capability this year by upgrading systems for two APHIS entities, Veterinary Services and Plant Protection and Quarantine.

The improvements appear to have come at just the right time, in light of the increased threat of bioterrorism.

'In the wake of the Sept. 11th tragedies,' Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman said, 'the next farm bill should also consider critical farm biosecurity issues such as pest and disease prevention, food safety, and research to ensure our farms, livestock and food supply are protected against any potential threat.'

Outbreaks of foot-and-mouth and mad cow disease have cost European nations billions of dollars. To prevent such an occurrence on this side of the Atlantic, APHIS's Veterinary Services created a Web application to manage and track tasks involved with disease outbreaks and natural disasters affecting animals. John Belfrage, a staff veterinarian at the Center for Epidemiology and Animal Health in Fort Collins, Colo., oversaw its development.

'There have been significant changes in the political and the technology scene in the last 20 years,' Belfrage said. 'Nailing down the work flow has been our biggest challenge.'

The Emergency Management Reporting System contains three modules. The administrative module tracks people, costs, materials and equipment; the second component tracks general tasks and meetings; and the third module lets users track all the tasks involved in an on-site investigation.

Makes maps

The system interacts with the Veterinary Services geographic information system applications for mapping affected areas. The software, which is based on Lotus Notes, resides on servers located in Fort Collins and Raleigh, N.C.

'Some of the development was done by our own staff,' Belfrage said, but the agency also hired Eagle Technology Consultants of Atlanta to do much of the Web development work. 'We were not very proficient at the Web portion of Lotus Notes,' he said.

When a disease outbreak occurs, the application is downloaded to a server in the nearest field office. The field veterinarians take notebook PCs with them when conducting an inspection. While on site, they enter any clinical observations, lab samples obtained, animals vaccinated, quarantines issued or other steps taken. They then connect to the server via the Internet to upload the information to the main database.

APHIS recently tested EMRS during a mock foot-and-mouth disease outbreak exercise in Florida. Belfrage said he will continue to refine the system with feedback from additional tests.

'We're working on cooperating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local emergency agencies,' he said, 'so we may link in with their systems in future.'

APHIS's Plant Protection and Quarantine unit guards against entry of foreign pests or plant diseases. When an inspector finds pests or diseases, he quarantines a shipment and notifies the consignee of what steps must be taken to correct the problem.

Currently, the 220 quarantine offices work somewhat independent of each other. Inspection forms go by mail or fax to a central office where they are keyed into an enterprise database. PPQ is in the process of replacing paper forms with a customized Lotus Notes application developed by Eagle Technology Consultants, called the Emergency Action Notification System.

Workstations at each office connect to a central server. Inspectors fill out the form electronically, and the system automatically faxes it to the consignee. PPQ staff use the system to sort, search and categorize forms, letting them spot trends and find and stop problems earlier. The system will be functional by the end of the year.

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