A report from the New York Times states that the computer system used by the country’s 3,000 federal meat inspectors was shut down for two days this month, leading to shipments of meat being shipped out of plants before workers could collect samples to check for pathogens.

Inspectors say that they were forced to use old paper forms to complete some of their work, but that in many cases it was too late.

“Management sent out a memo saying to reschedule the sampling of meat,” said Stan Painter, a federal inspector in Crossville, Ala., who leads the inspectors’ union. “But in most cases that meat is now gone. We can’t inspect product that went out the door when the system was down.”

USDA officials confirmed that the system failed nationwide on August 8 but emphasized that the shutdown did not compromise the country’s food supply. There have been no reported examples of contaminated meat getting into the hands of consumers.

The Times notes that the new inspection system was supposed to be a significant improvement over older methods that the Agriculture Department had used for decades. In the past, food safety officials at the agency determined which meat would be sampled and at what times. Inspectors collected the samples, filled out paper forms, sent them along with the meat by mail to testing labs and waited days for the results by return mail.

After the new system was set up in 2011, computers set the meat sampling schedules. Following online directions, inspectors collected specific samples of meat as they had before and mailed them for testing to labs. But instead of sending the paperwork along with the meat, inspectors sent information about the samples via the computer system to the labs. The test results were received electronically, and faster than in the past.

But inspectors say the nationwide failure of the computer system early this month — along with other recent breakdowns — undermine the department’s assertions that the new technology has improved the safety of the nation’s meat.

“They’ve poured millions of dollars into this thing, and it still doesn’t work,” Mr. Painter said. “We want to do our jobs, but they need to give us tools that work, so we can.”

A report in March by the Agriculture Department’s inspector general found that glitches with the new computer system led to problems with meat sampling at 18 plants last year. At one of the plants, auditors found that inspectors had not properly sampled some 50 million pounds of ground beef for E. coli over a period of five months. At another plant, which the report identified as among the 10 largest slaughterhouses in the United States, auditors found that computer failures had caused inspectors to miss sampling another 50 million pounds of beef products.

To read the report in its entirety, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/us/computer-system-failed-at-meatpacking-plants-but-shipping-continued.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

Source: New York Times