How's the Beef?: USDA Goes Mobile

By Brian P. Watson Print this article Print

When mad cow disease threatened, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started giving workers tablet PCs to record inspection results, replacing paper and pen.

On Christmas Day 2003, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture got a gift they wished they could exchange: the positive test results from a cow in Washington State that they believed died from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease.

Until then, technology barely played a role in the agency's efforts to track the disease, a brain-wasting disorder. Inspectors from the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) were testing 1,000 to 2,000 cattle nationwide per month in late 2003 and early 2004, often using pen and paper to record results and observations.

Because USDA officials had not seen mad cow as a major threat here, there were no standard requirements for reporting details from cattle inspections. Once the first case surfaced, however, the agency officials, fearing the possibility that mad cow could spread further, wanted to enable field inspectors to electronically record test results and instantly route them into a database.

In March 2004, three months after that first positive test, the agency directed a software development group based at the Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health, a division of APHIS' Veterinary Services group, in Fort Collins, Colo., to build a mobile data-collection network to speed up test-taking and aggregating the results. The deadline: 12 weeks. The budget: $1.2 million for equipment and services.

The team met the June 1, 2004 deadline, building a system that uses tablet PCs, form software that allows inspectors to key in or handwrite their inspection reports with a stylus pen, and databases that link inspectors and analysts to both a new mad cow database and the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, an existing database of federal and state records on animal diseases and threats.

"Basically, we had a small amount of time to put together the system, but it's worked well," says Rich Baca, the project's lead developer.

Since 2003, two more cases of mad cow have been discovered in the U.S.—one in Texas in June 2005 and, most recently, in March, a euthanized cow in Alabama. The new system let inspectors access records from the databases about the dead cow's ancestry to see if it was born in another country or if it was born here before certain feed restrictions were put in place; health records and trends documented in the new network led inspectors to quarantine other animals on the farm until they could be tested.

The new mobile computing system supports a testing model created by USDA scientists based on findings from European inspections. There, infections were most common among what scientists dubbed "high-risk" populations of cattle, particularly "downers," or non-ambulatory cows. Using statistical formulas, the USDA scientists believe that if they could test 268,500 cows from the high-risk population of 446,000, they could theorize that less than a handful of cases would exist in the U.S.

This article was originally published on 2006-04-06
Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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