USDA inspectors improve communications by going Solo

USDA inspectors improve communications by going Solo

By Caron Golden

Special to GCN

They are the road warriors of safe food consumption, battling bacteria and unsanitary conditions on behalf of the millions of people for whom culinary pleasure is a hearty steak or tender drumstick.

But until recently the meat and poultry inspectors of the Agriculture Department had been hitting the road with a strategic disadvantage'no computers as trusty sidekicks, which meant a slow line of communication with their supervisors.

That is changing. Three thousand inspectors nationwide now are armed with Gateway Solo notebook PCs. By 2000, Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service expects to have another 1,400 inspectors equally outfitted, and that will complete a five-year implementation project, said Peter Kuhmerker, the agency's director of the Field Automation and Information Management Division.

The inspectors' notebook PCs range from the Solo 2000 to the Solo 2500LS. Each has a 13.3-inch XGA color screen, a 333-MHz Pentium II processor, 120M of RAM, a 6.4G hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive with a 120M SuperDisk and a 56-Kbps modem.

The inspectors do not have access to the Internet'the cost of connection is the sticking point, especially if it's not required for the job'but they do have e-mail. And that has been a boon to FSIS.

Where's the beef?

Although there are inspectors assigned fulltime to large poultry plants and slaughterhouses who work on desktop PCs, thousands are on the road, visiting an average of three plants a day.

They need to communicate with their supervisors and technical centers, often immediately. On the administrative side, playing phone tag with thousands of inspectors is unproductive, Kuhmerker said.

'If they're in places like Iowa, they're pretty spread out and travel longer to get to a plant. If they're in New York, the plants may be only blocks away from each other, but it's still pretty difficult' to contact the inspectors, Kuhmerker said. 'They may be in the plant or traveling between plants. So it's been difficult to get information to people.'

E-mail via the notebooks has greatly improved communications, he said.

'We now have the ability, with a single command, to send messages to four-fifths of our work force,' which is a vast improvement over playing phone tag, he said. 'If we have to restrict imports from a foreign country, we can immediately notify inspectors via e-mail.'

Inspectors in the field, meanwhile, can send questions to supervisors and get quick replies, Kuhmerker said. Also, samples sent to labs from the plants can be analyzed overnight and the results e-mailed to the inspector the next day, he said. Previously, it took a combination of fax, phone calls and postal mail'all of which took about a week'to get the information.

FSIS also uses e-mail to distribute software, and it averages about three software updates a month.

Having a database at their fingertips has increased the inspectors' efficiency even more. All the agency's notices, directives and regulations are now in electronic format, Kuhmerker said. 'Instead of having to go through shelf after shelf of directives to find what they need, inspectors now have a database on their computer that allows them to find, say, the proper cooking temperature for roast beef.'

The inspectors are given a traveling library of CDs that contain 20 computer training programs for such subjects as slaughter and import inspection, how to use the software, and workplace skills. This not only provides training more quickly but also saves money: CDs are inexpensive, whereas training sessions are costly, as is replacing the inspectors who attend sessions for days at a time.

Food for thought

Inspectors still are not filing their reports electronically, however. Although they have been provided with FormFlow software from JetForm Corp. of Ottawa and have about 100 forms on their computers to use for reports, they still have to print the completed forms and mail them to the office. 'We're graduating to electronic filing next fiscal year,' Kuhmerker said.

All in all, Kuhmerker and the inspection staff are happy with their Solos.

Caron Golden is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.

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