IG report urges faster mad cow tracking system

The Agriculture Department should expedite development of a new disease surveillance system for tracking cattle samples from collection to testing to reporting results and integration with diagnostic testing labs, a recent report from the department's Office of Inspector General said.

The new system will support the department's expanded program to test cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Under the program, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food Safety and Inspection Service plan to increase testing to 200,000 cattle annually from 12,500.

APHIS, the agency responsible for the new system, should also implement performance measures and a continuous risk assessment to enhance management of the program and better assess its effectiveness, the report said.

APHIS has begun drafting requirements for the National Animal Health Laboratory Network system, which will interface with multiple laboratory information management systems in each diagnostic lab via a standardized messaging protocol. The agency must also determine how to incorporate data from the old system.

'Requirements and design of the new system are particularly important because sample testing will be contracted out to various laboratories across the country,' Robert Young, assistant inspector general for audit in the Office of Inspector General, said in the report. Those test results will need to be integrated with the ones maintained by the government's National Veterinary Services Labs.

The new system will have to be able to track samples, transmit data, promptly provide negative test results to slaughtering and rendering facilities, provide user management reports, and ensure system and data security. Veterinarians and other sample collectors will submit specimen data electronically or via the Internet.

The IG questioned the accuracy of APHIS' current databases due to inadequate controls.

APHIS said in its response that it has developed a database, which captures the information from an electronic version of a standard lab form, to track and analyze various data points on samples. Electronic form submission and business rules in the database ensure consistency and reduce data-entry errors.

The agency has also developed a new single database that allows labs to track sample submissions and report test results and provides a repository for data gathered when the sample was collected. For example, when a sample is collected at a rendering plant, that facility is documented as the site of collection and the location from which the animal carcass originated is listed as the owner or source location.

Earlier this month, Agriculture awarded $11.6 million to 29 states and tribal organizations to begin registering premises that handle cattle through a standardized system as the first step in the national animal identification initiative. (GCN story)

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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