Food for Thought

Oct. 3, 2016
Michigan Department of Agriculture deploys tools to keep businesses open during Flint crisis

About the author: Bob Ferguson is managing director for Strategic Diagnostics Inc., a market analyst and advisory company in industrial diagnostics (including water, sanitation, food, pharmaceutical microbiology and laboratory services) for more than 20 years, and a frequent author on water, diagnostics and environmental issues. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @SCI_Ferguson.

In my August column, I wrote about the free pipe offer that JM Eagle made to the city of Flint, Mich., to help solve its infrastructure issues. As of this issue, the city continues to replace lead service lines, but still is debating the merits of free piping and has not yet acted on the offer.

While the crisis in Flint was certainly about drinking water, its impact reached far beyond drinking water supply and distribution.

In July, at the International Assn. of Food Protection conference in Saint Louis, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation from Kevin Besey of the Michigan Department of Agriculture about the crisis in Flint. He had a unique perspective on the impact of the lead contamination in the city. 

Why is the Michigan Department of Agriculture’s perspective important in Flint? The department is responsible for inspections of food service and retail and processing facilities across the state. According to Besey, there are 63,000 licensed facilities—including 18,000 retail and processing facilities and 45,000 food service locations—for which his department is responsible. 

The situation in Flint is complicated enough from the perspective of the provision of drinking water, but Flint also has 612 food establishments using and serving that water. Making sure that the water they use for cooking for food processing is safe and potable was a key public health issue. In an economically depressed area like Flint, keeping those businesses open also was a key economic concern.

In his presentation, Besey reported that at the time of the Flint incident, he had two employees assigned to the city of Flint and surrounding Genesee County. Two inspectors were in no way sufficient to complete the needed work to keep open food facilities in Flint. Additionally, for safety reasons—especially for state agency employees, with so many Flint residents understandably angry at the state of Michigan (albeit at a different agency)—inspectors had to travel in pairs, making the need for inspectors even greater. So the department had to call in inspectors from around the state as well as local public health agencies.

The inspectors visited every food facility in the city, taking water samples and verifying that protective measures, such as regular flushing and the installation of water filters, were being employed. The inspectors also helped to verify which facilities were on township water, which is from a different source and therefore not affected by the crisis. The department developed an online database that was updated every morning, showing the restaurants and facilities that were in compliance and all of the water analysis data from each location. This helped to restore confidence in the restaurants and keep them safely operating.

One of the discoveries that Besey reported was one that I had not heard before: The department discovered that many people in Flint had been home- canning food. When asked, “What about the water that we used in the canning of food?” the department recognized that it had an issue. It analyzed samples of cans and jars that residents gave it and found that many of them had high levels of lead. 

Due to this finding, the Agriculture Department recommended that people dispose of home-canned food. What they learned, however, was that in Flint, home canning was some residents’ only source of food over the winter months. In effect, what the state was telling these people was that they not only lacked a safe source of drinking water, but they also lacked a safe source of food. Outside water and nutrition assistance was going to be necessary.

Surveying the Scene

Besey also mentioned in his presentation that his department used a wide variety of tools, including the Incident Command System from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and GIS mapping to manage sample location and data from the field. But the tool that Besey and his team used that impressed me the most was Survey Monkey.

Yes, that’s right. Survey Monkey. That application used to take opinion polls and customer surveys. But how and why they used it was, in my opinion, brilliant and potentially useful for anyone in this type of crisis situation. They developed a Survey Monkey questionnaire with the questions they were looking to answer, such as lead testing levels, numbers of facilities tested and passed, facilities in violation and similar data. 

In the field, inspectors had the Survey Monkey app on their smartphones, and as they completed their inspections, they entered data by completing the survey from their cars. As the app automatically updated the “survey results,” Besey and his management team had up-to-the-minute data on inspections, compliance, testing results, violations, etc. Besey reports that these real-time compliance updates were a real help, as he points out, “with CNN sitting on everybody’s doorstep.”

Hopefully you are never put in a situation like the crisis in Flint, but we all run into some sort of project where real-time data from the field is important, and this may be something to keep in mind. Of all the lessons from Flint—and there are many—there is one you can use for your day-to-day business.

Besey concluded his presentation by noting that with the additional help it was able to bring into the city, and with its program of prioritization, sampling, and compliance assistance, his department was able to help keep virtually all of the food service and processing facilities open in Flint during the crisis. My congratulations to Besey and his team for their work and their response to this crisis. 

About the Author

Bob Ferguson

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