Data hits the road

Not long ago, Kip Ayers, a senior compliance officer with the Agriculture

Department, carried two large plastic milk crates in the back seat of his

car filled with information about food contamination.

When he needed to identify a green mold or a brown one, he went to his

makeshift filing system and plowed through thick binders looking for information.

Sometimes the data was available, but more often than not, he had to find

a phone and call headquarters for guidance. That was especially tough for

the USDA officer based in Salem, Ore., whose territory stretched from Idaho

to Guam.

Now, every inspector with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service

is equipped with a computer. In October, the final laptop computer in the

Field Automation and Information Management (FAIM) initiative was delivered

to a food inspector in Cedar City, Utah, giving more than 5,000 inspectors

easy access to information.

"Without a computer, I would have to fax things," Ayers said. "I had

no fax machine with me. I would have to pay for the fax and pay for the

telephone. I went from a briefcase and milk crates full of paperwork to

one manila folder and a laptop computer."

Ayers and other inspectors now have toll-free telephone numbers; some

even have wireless Internet connections. And the data is encrypted in both

directions via a virtual private network. With the laptops, inspectors have

easy access to information on everything from the latest U.S. outbreak

of E. coli to the proper packaging of poultry before it leaves the processing

plant, said Barry Blumreich, FAIM's deputy director.

"The computer doesn't help them stop things as much as [it] allows them

to communicate if they find things," Blumreich said. "If something is found

in one part of the country and others have to watch for it, we can send

a message out. If we had some kind of outbreak of disease in one part of

the country, we would be able to broadcast quickly."

The new tools are a welcome change, Ayers said. "We used to put on our

little green visors and take down numbers by hand. It was real easy to transpose

numbers when you were in a hurry. The computer has made reporting so much

easier."

In addition, compliance officers now have access to digital cameras.

When Ayers or other inspectors are unsure about what they are looking at,

they simply snap a picture, download it into the laptop and send it off

for experts to evaluate.

The USDA also plans to create a central database so inspectors can

easily search for the latest information on product contamination. Currently,

product-contamination data must be e-mailed to those in the field because

there is more than one database in which such information is stored. Whenever

updates are made to the various databases, inspectors must download a new

version of the file to their computers.

The steps that the USDA has taken get high marks from the field, particularly

in light of recent reports of contaminated food that has made people sick — and in some cases killed them.

"I think that anything that we can do to increase the accountability

from gate to plate, or dirt to dessert, we ought to be doing," said Warren

Clark, founder of AgPR.com Inc. (formerly Clark Consulting International

Inc.), a consulting firm that helps farmers adapt to the world of e-business.

Wendell Joice, team leader for the governmentwide telework program at

the General Services Administration, said giving the mobile workers the

tools they need to do their job is not the wave of the future — it's already

here.

"When you control it, you control the quality," Joice said. "It's easy

to pinpoint problems and security issues. You make sure that folks are equipped

the way you want them to be."

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