Meat inspectors now use better IT, data analysis

Danger of deliberate contamination puts USDA inspection efforts into high gear

Meat could be used to deliver a gastro-terror attack, so the Agriculture Department is devising plans to beef up food safety from both accidental and intentional contamination.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has updated its information systems so inspectors can better document, block and hunt down micro-organisms that threaten the nation's food supply.

FSIS rolled out the start of its improved food security effort last fall with the Automated Import Inspection System, which increases port-of-entry food sampling. All imported meat products go through the AIIS system, which is designed to tie all ports together, said Peter Kuhmerker, director of FSIS' field automation and information management division. 'If a problem comes in at one port, all other ports will know about it,' he said.

Quick action

For example, USDA shut down beef imports from Canada temporarily in May because of an isolated case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. 'We were able to put that restriction into effect within hours. Implementing that would have taken longer under the previous system,' Kuhmerker said.

AIIS focuses on a foreign country's inspection process. The system randomly selects shipments of meat imports for re-inspection based on the annual volume of shipments from the exporting country. Previously, re-inspection was based only on the compliance history of the company that produced the shipment.

The upgraded AIIS links inspectors at all points of entry, sharing information on shipments and violations immediately.

Imported products are inspected in their country of origin and re-inspected generally only visually upon entry to the United States. AIIS re-inspections may include testing for residue, microbiology or food chemistry.

FSIS uses a primary database from Sybase Inc. Software from Proclarity Corp. of Boise, Idaho, analyzes trends and data, Kuhmerker said. The software examines examples of noncompliance for factors such as geographic location, companies involved and which inspection processes were questionable.

Under the AIIS project, FSIS is replacing about 5,500 desktop and notebook PCs as it converts to Microsoft Windows XP, he said.

Dr. Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety, developed a broad plan to reduce the incidence of food-borne illness in meat, poultry and eggs in a document released in July, 'Enhancing Public Health: Strategies for the Future.' The agency will flesh out details by the end of the year, FSIS spokesman Steven Cohen said.

FSIS will establish an Office of Technology Approval Review to reduce the lag time between the development and implementation of new technologies to improve safety at meat processing facilities.

The office will be able to respond within 60 days to a request to use new technology. To date, approval has been inconsistent. 'We're going to have specific people assigned to it and establish it as an independent, technology-oriented entity,' Cohen said.

FSIS' next step to protect the food supply is to integrate import inspection data with information from other import surveillance systems, such as those used by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. FSIS' food analysis component will go online in October, Kuhmerker said.

USDA and several other agencies, along with state laboratories, are also developing a nationwide Food Emergency Response Network to deal with potential biological, chemical or radiological terrorist attacks.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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