The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has launched a web-based system that identifies and keeps tainted meat, poultry and eggs out of the food chain.
Gone are paper reports and word-of-mouth alerts about unsafe and dangerous food detected by USDA’s food inspectors, whether its salmonella or sour milk that sends consumers to the hospital.
“The more real time data we get, the better we protect the public’s health.” – Janet Stevens
In its place is the Public Health Information System (PHIS), a user-friendly, web-based application launched last month that collects inspection information in a single database.
“It’s a public health system that allows us to protect the public’s health based on inspection reports. It allows us to make decisions based on real time,” FSIS CIO Janet Stevens told Breaking Gov.
The PHIS integrates and automates the agency’s paper-based business processes into one comprehensive and fully automated data-driven inspection system. It will significantly improve FSIS’s mission to collect, consolidate and analyze data in order to improve public health.
It gives the FSIS staff of 10,000 federal workers a snapshot of what’s happening in the field and how to quickly respond.
FSIS inspectors are currently using 7,000 laptops and 1,500 BlackBerries to report their findings.
But until now, it sometimes took days to get the information into the system and action to protect the consumer.
Stevens also is investigating whether iPads and other mobile devices would make it easier and faster to get near real time data. However, inspections often take place in environments that are far too hot or cold for laptops or tablets, making it difficult to use some state of the art tools.
“The more real time data we get, the better we protect the public’s health,” Stevens said.
The information is available internally at the USDA and for other agencies that protect public health, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.
The goal is to share information on a daily basis and give FSIS decision makers a better picture of what’s happening across the country. It will remove the time lag that previously occurred over days or even weeks, Stevens said.
The following are additional IT tools used to publicize food safety issues:
- USDA food safety on Twitter
- AskKaren.gov went online and mobile last year, a consumer service on food safety at any time
- FSIS Podcasts
- Subscription email for the latest news and recalls from FSIS.
Stevens has been the FSIS CIO since 2007 and has spent 21 years in various USDA jobs. Here are her 6 tips for other IT executives as they work toward consolidation and better use of technology:
- Understand what your staff needs. Everyone wants an iPad, but it may not be necessary for everyone to have one
- Talk to other agencies that went down the path you are now taking to change their business. Look at change management projects, lessons learned and best practices
- Develop the criteria to measure success. “There’s nothing worse than thinking you are going down the right path when you aren’t,” Stevens said.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. That’s why there are pilot projects
- Look for information everywhere. Read every audit
- Use social media. Experience the tools and functionality you want to deliver. Don’t just talk about them. People know the difference. “I am on twitter everywhere,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ biggest challenge in 2012 is dealing with the impact of the tight federal budget.
She and others at USDA are looking at increasing the amount of in-house work that can be done instead of hiring outside contractors and relying on more tech solutions such as the cloud.
And FSIS is in the process of sunsetting legacy systems, including performance-based inspection and the automated import inspection system.
“You really have to tighten your belt, show the value you are bringing to the organization,” she said. “That’s what budget cuts do.”