Too many cooks spoil the broth: Auditors find DHS food safety IT distasteful

Federal programs to protect the food supply from terrorist attacks are spread across several Homeland Security Department agencies that have failed to coordinate their IT activities, according to the Homeland Security inspector general.

Overlapping projects to develop models and databases of the nation's food-supply infrastructure and the threats it faces are simmering in various agencies, according to the IG.

A recent inspector general's office report, titled The Department of Homeland Security's Role in Food Defense and Critical Infrastructure Protection, described how several presidential directives on food safety planning had failed to blend various technology projects.

DHS food safety projects fall under the control of more than 20 agency programs, many with technology missions. 'The shortage of advance communication and coordination contributed, in part, to the propagation of similar projects and initiatives,' the report said.

In one technology arena, the area of developing models of the supply chains for various types of food, DHS is sponsoring work by the Critical Infrastructure Protection Decision Support System; the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center; and the National Center for Food Protection and Defense.

'Because DHS models of food supply chains and simulations of food contamination events are not fully developed, the department cannot fully appreciate the consequences of an incident of this type,' auditors wrote.

DHS food safety technology programs also aren't properly linked to other federal agencies that could provide essential data and expertise, according to the report.

The IG office recommended that DHS upgrade management of the National Biosurveillance Integration System (NBIS) by recruiting representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspections Staff.

Department officials told the auditors that talks with USDA were nearly complete, but information-sharing discussions with CDC and FDA had just begun.

The report added that DHS should funnel more data into the NBIS from two other food-monitoring systems at Agriculture. 'Without information from other federal foodborne illness monitoring systems, the [NBIS] may miss opportunities to identify and link related illness patterns,' the report added.

DHS responded to the auditors' 16 recommendations for consolidating food safety management and technology, concurring with 12. Department officials set forth plans to adopt one additional coordination recommendation.

DHS rejected one reorganization move that the auditors proposed for reasons of administrative and technical efficiency.

DHS officials also rejected the auditors' recommendation that the department name a liaison with the Food Safety Information Sharing and Advisory Council, citing organizational reasons why the job isn't needed. The auditors wrote, 'That the department has resisted a step as basic as maintaining a point of contact with the Food Safety ISAC is troubling.'

The department and the auditors also fell out over a recommendation over grant funding for food safety projects, possibly as a result of DHS' 'misreading' the suggestion, the report said.

The department endorsed the auditors' recommendation that DHS name a single, senior official to oversee food safety, but the department has not unveiled any such appointment.

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