It’s time to clean house at FSIS
By Tony Corbo
I am supposed to be on vacation this week. I have been pulling weeds from my vegetable garden – not using Round Up or Agent Orange or Napalm. Pulling weeds can be cathartic, but an article that appeared in the August 18, 2013, New York Times entitled, “Shipping Continued After Computer Inspection System Failed at Meat Plants,” pulled me away from my peaceful gardening and prompted me to write this blog. I have known about the dysfunctional computer system featured in this article for quite some time and have held back on railing against it, but this Times article is the last straw. Now I’m going to tell you the rest of the story that the Times left out.
I have known that the Public Health Information System (PHIS) has not worked since USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) turned on the new computer system for its meat and poultry inspectors in April 2011. Billed as an upgrade to the old IT system that inspectors had been using, web-based PHIS would offer the inspectors the ability to record data in the new system even when there was no access to the internet.
PHIS was supposed to consolidate all the databases the agency maintained and provide “real time” observations into each meat and poultry plant that was inspected. Predictive analytics would be used to evaluate data recorded by the inspectors so that potential problems with a plant’s food safety practices could be flagged and fed back to the inspectors so that they could take action to prevent contaminated products from going into commerce.
In 2010, FSIS inspectors who were asked to test the new information technology system warned the agency that the system was not ready for prime time. There were literally thousands of issues that they brought to their supervisors’ attention about flaws in the new system. While the agency management promised to correct the problems, many of them remain today. Even though they had been warned, the agency management decided to plow ahead and turned the program on in a select group of plants in April 2011. The system immediately blew up.
This past April, I decided to attend a conference of FSIS inspectors that was held in Branson, Missouri in order to get more insights into PHIS and maybe even take in a show. There were over 100 inspectors who attended and they were from all of the Midwest states. These inspectors worked in assignments where the PHIS system had been in operation the longest. I told the inspectors that I would be available to listen to their experiences with PHIS and a table was set up for me in the hallway outside the conference room. I sat out in that hallway for a total of 18 hours and took over 21 pages of notes. These inspectors told me about software issues that plagued the system: the chronic locking up of the system forcing them to reboot; the frequent outages in the system that led to a loss of data that had been transmitted; and their inability to record data when there was no access to the internet. The most troubling comment I heard was that on some occasions, inspectors were so tied up trying to get the system to work that they weren’t able to set foot on plant floors to conduct inspections.
I had to laugh when I read in the New York Times story that the agency management has blamed the lack of broadband access in rural areas as to being the major problem with PHIS. One of the inspectors whom I interviewed in April was based in St. Louis. That inspector reported chronic problems with establishing connectivity. Not only is St. Louis a significant city, but St. Louis is the location of one of the national server banks for PHIS.
Needless to say, I never got to see any shows in Branson.
In May, I tried to inform the agency management of what I found out at the inspectors conference. I told them that none of the data could be trusted in PHIS. The agency administrator, Alfred Almanza, walked out of the meeting. The truth hurts.
The New York Times story left out some facts about PHIS that need to be exposed. The article claimed that system has cost $20 million to implement. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s IT Dashboard, the total projected cost for PHIS has been pegged at $141.48 million. The Government Accountability Office has identified PHIS as one of the Federal Government’s “troubled IT projects”. But the most important fact the article left out was that PHIS can perform magic.
On June 28, 2013, the management of FSIS issued instructions to inspectors who are assigned to horse slaughter facilities. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of slaughtering horses for meat for human consumption, I think that everyone should be astounded when reading this section of the instructions:
Until the equine class is available in PHIS, unless directed by the DO (district office) otherwise, IPP (inspection program personnel) are to verify that the establishment profile includes the slaughter class “GOAT” and enter equine data in PHIS using the goat slaughter class. If the establishment profile does not include the goat slaughter class, IPP are to add “GOAT” slaughter class to the plant profile.
NOTE: “GOAT” is being used at this time in order to capture necessary information in PHIS relative to equine. FSIS will manage PHIS results in a manner to discern goat data separately from equine data until such time that PHIS is modified to accommodate equine data entry. FSIS will rely upon the grant of inspection to discern which establishments in PHIS slaughter goat versus equine.
Here I was concerned this summer that the Food and Drug Administration was going to approve genetically engineered salmon, when PHIS is turning horses into goats!
The New York Times story is just one of many revelations about the mismanagement of FSIS that has come out in recent months. The USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued a series of very scathing reports that call into question whether the management of that agency has a clue. The most recent audit report entitled, “FSIS’ and AMS’ Field Level Workforce Challenges” that was released on August 6, 2013 made the following observations:
Despite the argument that overworked employees are more likely to commit errors, some FSIS inspectors are working many hours above a normal 80 hour per two-week pay period—more than 400 of FSIS’ approximately 10,000 inspectors averaged more than 120 hours each pay period for the entire FY 2012. Our analysis showed that 1 inspector averaged 179 hours, 3 inspectors averaged over 160 hours, and 14 averaged over 150 hours. When OIG brought this issue to the attention of FSIS officials, they stated that they were unaware of this fact, and doubted that this extended overtime would negatively affect the agency’s inspectors. In addition, due to FSIS’ outdated systems that require manual data entry processes, FSIS cannot efficiently reconcile the hours of overtime billed to industry to the overtime hours recorded in its timekeeping system. Officials explained that, although FSIS has set limits on the number of hours an inspector can work in one day, FSIS has not limited inspectors working overtime hours for extended periods of time. OIG maintains that overworked FSIS inspectors may be risking their own and the public’s health, especially if they are tired or fatigued while performing crucial food safety-related tasks. Additionally, industry should be properly billed for inspection services performed during overtime hours.
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, extended or unusual work shifts may be stressful physically, mentally, and emotionally. These effects lead to an increased risk of operator error, injuries, or accidents. Federal regulations state that Departments, such as USDA, shall schedule the basic work week so as to consist of five consecutive 8-hour days, although the Department may depart from the basic work week in those cases where maintaining such a schedule would seriously handicap the Department in carrying out its function.
Reducing Excess Overtime
Many studies, including those detailed in a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have shown that not only is working long hours detrimental to the health and well-being of employees, but that it decreases employee productivity while on the job. The FSIS union contract stipulates that field inspectors are generally not to work more than 10 or 12 hours in one day, depending on their duties. However, we found that some inspectors are working these hours six and even seven days a week. Because of these extended hours, OIG believes FSIS inspectors could have decreased productivity, which might impair their ability to perform functions that are critical to public food safety….
When we spoke to FSIS officials about the long hours some of their inspectors are working, they stated that they were not aware inspectors were working such long hours each pay period. While the FSIS officials disagreed that the hours were affecting their field staff’s work, they stated that they needed to better understand the effects of these long hours on their employees. If the results of their inquiry into this issue, based on our audit work, shows that employee fatigue was contributing to worker problems, they would be willing to make changes.
There is something drastically wrong going on at that agency. I am not one who casually calls for the resignation or the termination of people, but I think the time has come for the systematic cleaning out of the management of FSIS – and that includes the Under Secretary for Food Safety, the Administrator of FSIS, the Deputy Administrator, and all of the Assistant Administrators. The safety of the food supply is being compromised by their lackadaisical approach to managing that agency. I do this reluctantly, but enough is enough.