Nationwide computer failures cause millions of pounds - KLTV.com-Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville, Texas | ETX News

Nationwide computer failures cause millions of pounds of meat to go uninspected weekly

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MILFORD, TX -

More than 250 pounds of poultry are under a recall after the Fran's Fryers plant, in Milford, Texas, reported Wednesday some of their product had gone out without being federally inspected. But, according to meat inspectors, this happens much more often than you think, with no recall.

A computer system used in meat packing plants in East Texas, and across the country, has been failing, causing the meat you might be eating to go out the door uninspected. According to meat inspectors, samples of meat have been ignored, leaving millions of pounds shipped across the country. For two full days in August, the Public Health Information System, or PHIS, went down.

That plant in Milford admitted their product missed inspection due to a communication glitch between their company and the federal inspector and it was recalled. But sometimes meat goes uninspected across the country due to this computer system failing and it is not recalled.

The United States Department of Agriculture acknowledges that PHIS failed on August 8 through August 10, due to a software flaw, but that's not all. We spoke with a man who works closely with a meat packing plant right here in East Texas that uses the same computer system. He says it fails weekly, allowing meat to be shipped uninspected for food borne illnesses like E.coli and Salmonella. He says when it goes down, that meat is not sampled, but it is still sent off to restaurants in East Texas and across the country.

Before your food shows up on your plate it is federally required to be inspected in a lab, but clearly that's not always happening. Public Health Information System is used by thousands of plants across the country, including the Tyson food processing plant in Carthage, Texas.

David Hosmer is the Southwest Council President of Food Inspection Locals, a union group for meat inspectors. He's witnessed the system's malfunctions first hand, and while one technology failed, he used another to document it. Screen shots of some of the times that system failed sit in a folder on his desk.

"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 said.

He flips through page after page of those messages, more than 25 screen shots of all the times that system just wasn't working within a week.

Inspectors use the system to input information onto a form generated by PHIS. Then, samples are sent to a lab off-site along with that form. According to a letter sent to plant managers "PHIS is a user-friendly, web-based application."

"It takes away a lot of time from time that we could be out in the plant monitoring their processes," Hosmer said.

Hosmer reveals the problem has been around much longer than its recent documented failure. In 2009 Hosmer was sent along with a group of meat inspectors to test the system before its release. And four years ago they documented system failures and issues. Again, screen shot after screenshot was taken and submitted so that when the computer system was introduced to the market in 2011, the kinks would be gone.

"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.

Issues, the USDA claims, that stem from connectivity issues in rural areas. Hosmer tells KLTV he's seen meat inspectors go to local restaurants that offer free wifi just to access the system. In that same February letter, it says, "keep in mind that the system may be unavailable at times due to periodic maintenance."

"Across the country, there's a three-hour difference, between East Coast and West Coast, that's during major production times when establishments are producing," Hosmer said.

Three to four times a week, he says, the system is down, either for maintenance or more of those error messages. 270,000 to 280,000 chickens are processed per day at that plant in Carthage. If each weighs an average of three pounds, that is nearly one million pounds of poultry produced per day. Off it goes, inspected, or not.

The chicken is sent to East Texas fast food restaurants. According to Hosmer, there is no check in place for contamination after that. If people start getting sick, companies might issue a recall, but by then, he says, most of the product would have already been consumed.

"There's a number of places that I won't eat at because of what I've seen, and I know that some of the places that I've worked at produces for these companies around here and I just won't eat them," Hosmer said.

The USDA provided us with a response letter addressed to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro who wrote the USDA about the problems. It states, "from late August 8 to early August 10, no contaminated product left a facility while the system was down and food safety was not compromised." Later in the letter, however, it mentions, "while PHIS being inaccessible did result in the collection of fewer samples, this occurred for a brief period of time and did not impact food safety."

"It still comes back to the inspectors in the plant getting the meat samples, getting them inspected; the computers can't do that," Congressman Louie Gohmert said.

"After seeing this story now, we're working on a letter to the FDA demanding to know what they're doing, what they've done, and they will be required to answer that," Gohmert said.

That letter also says The USDA is committed to addressing challenges, "particularly problems related to PHIS connectivity."

"To say that well this is because so many of our inspections are in rural areas and therefore we have problems with broadband in rural areas, that is not the problem," Gohmert continued, "I'm sure you know they have problems with it going down constantly and problems getting on in Dallas, and last I checked Dallas was not all that rural."

The USDA also says that inspectors should fall back on manual reports when PHIS fails. But, Hosmer said that isn't happening either.

"They can make anyone sick, they can kill them," Hosmer said, "these things that we test for are deadly bacteria and pathogens that we test for to try to keep the public safe. We can't test."

Those forms on PHIS carry serial numbers generated by the system with each sample. Hosmer explains if the lab receives a sample with no serial number, as would be the case with a hand-written or word document form, they'll toss the sample, but the plants still send that meat out, regardless.

"We can't hold them accountable for our failures of the system. They have a right to do business," Hosmer said.

The USDA has been trying to fix issues—a system that was projected to cost between 20 and 40 million dollars, according to Hosmer, has eaten up more than 140 million dollars to date, as noted on The IT Dashboard government website.

"They've spent more than double what they told us to begin with on a system that doesn't work," Hosmer said.

We contacted our own congressman, Louie Gohmert, who tells us another letter will be on its way. 

"We've got to get to the bottom of what the real problem is; it just is not a simple broadband access problem, there's a problem with the system," Gohmert said.

The USDA claims no illnesses have been traced back to meat uninspected during those two days in August when the system was down, but Hosmer said, it's just a game of Russian Roulette, and it's only a matter of time.

That letter also stated that The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, the governing body over this computer program, has put together a task force to address the issues. As of this week, however, Hosmer tells me the same issues are still happening.

I spoke with another meat inspector who works at a plant in Los Angeles. He echoed Hosmer's statements and tells me certain bacteria can be detected by simply looking at the meat—a visual test, which can be done at the plant. But for bacterium like E. coli and Salmonella, those samples must be sent out to a lab to be tested. And, again, when they are sent off to a lab without that specific PHIS form with that serial number, the lab rejects the sample and does not test the meat. That batch of meat, however, is still sent out back at the plant.

If you'd like to learn how you can protect yourself from food-borne illnesses, we've posted a list from the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

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