(July 2) LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s produce inspection system is vaulting into the 21st century in an effort to avert the problems that arose at the end of the 20th century at New York’s Hunts Point Terminal Market.

The USDA has spent about $1.5 million to automate its inspection system. Inspectors are being trained in a newly developed software program. Each inspector will carry laptop computers to every site, giving them instant access to information on a wide range of commodities.

It also will take much of the potential for human error out of the inspection process, the USDA said.

“We’ve been wanting to put together an automated system like this for a long time,” said Leanne Skelton, chief of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Fresh Produce Branch. “We started a contract with an outside vendor a few years ago, and now we are beginning to implement the program in some of our field offices.”

The system is being rolled out at USDA inspection offices in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn. Plans call for the system to be operational in all branches by the end of the year, Skelton said.

There are 37 federal marketing field offices.

“We have trained the staff that use it both in terms of the hardware as well as doing things a little differently than they were with the old paper-and-pencil method.”

INSTANT ACCESS

Perhaps most important, she added, is that it’s an automated system that enables inspectors to instantly access all USDA data on more than 150 commodities.
It also minimizes the chances of inspectors deviating from norms that are programmed into the system.

In other words, said Clifton Harada, officer in charge of the USDA’s inspection office in Los Angeles, the new program provides safeguards against the likelihood of another bribery scandal, a la the Hunts Point Terminal Market in 1999.

“Everything is put into the computer, so the chances of changing anything, it prevents it from happening,” he said. “It can’t be changed.”

When the inspection is completed, the inspector signs a certificate electronically and, with the touch of a button, sends copies of the certificate to all parties involved.

“So you’ll have the shipper and the receiver with the same information at the same time,” Skelton said.

TRACK DISCREPANCIES

Discrepancies between reports from different inspection offices is more readily tracked down in the new system, Skelton added.

“The industry will not be able to drill down to separate one inspector from another, but they’ll be able to separate, you know, in Boston, the inspectors all showed this defect and in Kansas City they aren’t showing any defect, and they’ll be able to explain that,” she said.

The program also streamlines management of inspection offices, Skelton said.

USDA is building in every federal grade standard its has for fresh fruits and vegetables, Skelton said.

The system will take on additional features, once it is up and running nationwide, Skelton said.

“After the new year, we’re having built into it time and attendance, so the inspector will fill that out, as well,” she said.
The system is going to take some time to roll out fully, she said. Even where it is now used, not all inspectors have been trained in the program.

In Los Angeles, for example, nine of the office’s 13 inspectors have been trained in the system. The Los Angeles center issued the first inspection certificate under the new system in May, Skelton said.