FDA Streamlines Food Safety Inspections with Panasonic Toughbook Tablets

To many of us, eating good food is one of the true pleasures in life. However, what is often overlooked is the immense amount of time and effort that goes into ensuring the safe handling, preparation and storage of our food supply.

In late 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) became involved in egg inspections, around the time of a massive nationwide egg recall following a salmonella outbreak that affected thousands of people. Until that time, the Department of Agriculture had been solely responsible for monitoring the egg industry. Under a new joint arrangement, the two agencies set out to improve conditions across the board.

toughbook-fda-2One of the FDA’s first undertakings was laying the groundwork for a migration from the agency’s manual reporting process, which utilized its iconic green inspection notebooks, in favor of a digital approach. The agency proposed the use of tablet computers to improve the efficiency of uncovering tainted eggs and other health violations, and projected a $70 million reduction in costs.

The solution they chose, which combines a fully rugged Panasonic Toughbook H2 Windows-based handheld tablet PC with custom software developed for the FDA by Booz Allen Hamilton, was rolled out as part of a pilot program in 2011. Dubbed the “Egg Pad”, the device uses intelligent questionnaires to guide investigators through their inspections. Based on the data entered, the device brings up additional questions and information the inspectors need to answer.

As the process continues, the Egg Pad builds a form that captures the inspector’s observations and the responses to the questions. At the end of the inspection, the Egg Pad automatically generates a draft of the final report. Previously, investigators were required to go back to their offices to manually complete this step.

In a recent FDA video, agency representatives point out how the system streamlines and improves the inspection reporting process. Additionally, the data captured can be used for better risk modeling. FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy adds that the Egg Pad “helps ensure that regulations are being applied to the deviations uncovered by our investigators.”

When selecting the hardware platform for its new digital approach, the FDA needed to consider the working conditions of its on-the-go inspectors. From being tossed in a car and occasional drops in the field, to conditions where dust, dirt and moisture are present, the Toughbook H2 tablet PC is designed to perform in extreme environments. As a result, users eliminate costly repairs or replacements, and avoid wasting time to recover lost work. Additionally, the tablet’s ruggedized physical properties allow it to be chemically sanitized between inspections, which is critical when dealing with live-animal inspections.

As of today, the Egg Pad is reportedly used in all of the FDA’s egg facility inspections.

FDA investigators are now able to instantly report contaminated eggs and many other health hazards. More importantly, officials can now better expedite the tainted food recall process and remove spoiled eggs and other potentially harmful farm foods from stores across the country.

With this success, the FDA is now exploring other food categories where the technology can be used. And, with the amount of food items produced and imported nationwide the possibilities seem endless. This is something that should make all of us feel a little safer as we sit down to enjoy our next meal.