AGRIBUSINESS: USDA Plagued by Computer System Woes

According to a New York Times report, on August 8, a new computer system used by inspectors at 6,500 meatpacking and processing plants across the U.S. shut down for two days, forcing inspectors to use old paper forms to complete some of their work. Inspectors visually and manually inspect every carcass in slaughterhouses throughout the nation – collecting computer-selected samples of beef, poultry and other meats – which are then sent to labs to be tested for E.coli, salmonella and other contaminants. While the overall goal of this new system was to provide real-time information about meat processing plant conditions and make it easier for the Food Safety and Inspection Service to track food safety problems before they turn into outbreaks, many inspectors say the system’s failure this month, and other recent breakdowns, prove otherwise.

USDA’s inspector general released a report in March showing glitches with the new system led to problems with meat sampling at 18 plants last year. Connecticut U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro says such data errors are unacceptable. USDA FSIS Officials says they are aware with the system’s problems, but that they have been corrected in many cases. FSIS Director Alfred Almanza says most of the problems cited by inspectors had little to do with the system and more to do with the death of wireless networks in rural areas where many processing plants are situated. Still, USDA is working with rural development agencies to expand internet access in processing plants and is addressing the problems raised by inspectors and in the March report.

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