Following a recall of more than 250 pounds of poultry meat at a processing plant in Milford, Texas, meat inspectors and other officials in the region have raised concerns about the stability of a computer system vital to the inspection process. The Public Health Information System, a “dynamic, comprehensive data analytic system” published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and used to help with the collection and analysis of meat inspection data, has experienced ongoing connectivity problems and systemic flaws since before its launch, according to some industry voices.
The Milford plant noted that the recalled meat missed inspection because of a system communication error between the company and the federal inspector. Such errors allow millions of pounds of meat to ship uninspected and unrecalled every year, ABC affiliate KLTV reported. The USDA admitted that a software flaw led to a PHIS outage from Aug. 8 to Aug. 10 but maintained that no consumers were placed at risk from the error.
However, according to inspector David Hosmer, Southwest Council President of Food Inspection Locals, such issues are common. He showed KLTV more than 25 screen shots of error messages received in the previous week – several of which appeared to be related to VPN connectivity issues – suggesting that system downtime, connectivity problems or other errors were seriously impacting the effectiveness of inspections. He said that the system was down due to maintenance or errors three or four times a week, even as millions of pounds of poultry are processed.
“I think it’s a huge problem; I mean, if the system’s not working, we can’t do our jobs and sample product, and we don’t know if adulterated product is leaving the establishment,” he told KLTV.
The USDA pointed to broadband connectivity problems in the rural areas where meat is mostly processed as the source of downtime, KLTV reported. However, according to Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, the same issues have been reported in Dallas, where broadband connectivity is generally high-quality.
An ongoing problem
According to Hosmer, the problem is more than a connectivity issue. He explained that he had been part of a group of inspectors sent to test the PHIS system when it was first being developed. The group identified a number of flaws.
“When they finally implemented the system in April of 2011, we still experienced those same issues that we had from 2009 when we tested it and reported those issues,” he said.
According to the government’s IT Dashboard website, the PHIS project has run up development costs totaling $140 million, despite an initial budget projection of $20 million to $40 million. While the nature of the software errors remains undisclosed to the public, it may be the case that poor development and error handling processes have made the system unwieldy and overbudget, potentially exposing large numbers of consumers to food risks.
Given the potential public outcry over the diverse consequences of such a problem – the recent uproar over Healthcare.gov provides a similar, more high-profile example – ensuring this type of system is developed with the best tools and practices is essential. Organizations tasked with developing such systems can catch and eliminate errors during the coding process using tools such as static analysis software and peer code reviews. By identifying errors early on, developers can avoid releasing a buggy system that may require substantial amounts of cleanup down the line.
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