Anybody ever experienced “computer problems?” Maybe the system went down at the office, or the cable went out at home. Or maybe your laptop just wouldn’t respond one morning, no matter how hard you kept banging on the keyboard.

It happens—regularly—to all of us. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of information technology: It ain’t foolproof.

And it’s certainly problematic when the computerized system that tracks food-safety testing for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service goes offline, as apparently happened on Aug. 8, according to a report in The New York Times. The new system has replaced the traditional paperwork accompanying test samples when they’re shipped to labs for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella testing, thus an interruption in what it supposed to be real-time testing is a cause for concern among both regulators and policymakers.

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

The computer system that processes testing data for the approximately 6,500 federally inspected meat and poultry plants was offline for two days, and food-safety advocates claimed that put at risk millions of pounds of meat shipped from plants before workers could collect samples to be tested for microbial pathogens

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) who co-chairs the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, called the problems with USDA’s computer system “staggering.”

“Data errors that threaten the health of Americans are unacceptable, and we clearly must do better by American families,” DeLauro told the newspaper.

USDA officials, while acknowledging that the system had failed nationwide, minimized the threat to public safety and insisted that the breakdown of the $20 million computer system had not compromised the nation’s meat supply.

When the system went down, inspectors reverted to using a paperwork system for documenting sample collection and other tasks, but otherwise conducted their normal inspection routines, said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. He added that the suggestion that consumers were put at risk was “entirely false.”

“I can tell you with 110% certainty that no contaminated product left a facility while the system was down,” Almanza told Food Safety News.

Neither USDA officials nor meat inspection representatives were unable to document any incidents of contaminated meat entering the marketplace.

The limits of testing

It’s expected that all parties to an incident such as this will jump at the chance to score points in the media. But here’s what’s disturbing: For about the ten thousandth time, reporters covering such food-safety stories miss the critical issue: Testing does not ensure the safety of food products, meat or otherwise.

Let me repeat that: Testing does not ensure safety, nor do negative test results guarantee that product isn’t contaminated.

The only way that there can be any assurance that the food we eat is safe is if there’s confidence in the processing protocols, intervention systems and quality-control measures in place at the plants. Testing is merely a way to validate the efficacy of all of the above.

We all place way too much faith in testing, whereas the whole point of mandating HACCP systems in processing plants was to shift the focus from end-product testing to upstream controls. If processes aren’t in place to deal with potential microbial contamination—everything from animal handling to hide removal to carcass dressing to subprimal fabrication to packaging to cooking to sanitation—no amount of testing will make a bit of difference. 

During a stint some years ago in Washington, D.C., my job (in part) was to explain this concept to ag and food reporters, which I did ad nauseum. I wished fervently that once—just once—I’d read a subsequent story or listen to a broadcast report that actually explained that reality to reader and viewers.

Never happened. 

It’s still not happening, and until industry experts have better luck than I did in convincing media members that product testing is not the be-all and end-all of food safety, there will be many more scare stories like this one.

Which creates false fears about a “problem” that doesn’t exist. ÿ 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.