The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently enlisted a mobile tablet -- that it refers to as the “Egg Pad” -- to help farm investigators detect tainted eggs and other health violations faster, more efficiently and more sanitarily.

The agency’s tablet field data collection system could eventually take the place of FDA investigators’ trademark green inspection notebooks, according to Barbara Cassens, the FDA‘s director of the San Francisco District. The Egg Pad, as agency investigators nicknamed it in the field, is actually a Panasonic Toughbook that ran on software developed exclusively for the FDA by Booz Allen Hamilton, an American technology consulting firm headquartered in Virginia. The software was adapted from an existing FDA application.

The Egg Pad’s real-time data entry system streamlined and better expedited the FDA’s often cumbersome, time-consuming farm inspection reporting processes during a successful 2011-2012 proof of concept program, Cassens told Government Technology during a recent phone interview.

The first Egg Pad units were initially distributed to agency farm inspectors as part of the proof of concept program in 2011. During the following year, the FDA deployed approximately 42 Egg Pad devices in the field. By the third quarter of 2012, the Egg Pad was reportedly used in all of the FDA’s farm facility inspections.

FDA investigator personnel who used the tablet during farm inspections were able to instantly report contaminated eggs and many other health hazards (what the FDA refers to as “objectionable conditions”) -- and, more importantly, better expedite the tainted food recall process that can lead to the removal of spoiled eggs and other potentially harmful farm foods from store shelves, restaurants and home kitchens throughout the country.

The Egg Pad tablet’s user-friendly software, which operated on Windows-based laptops and desktop computers, cross-checked each inspection facility's deviations from the newest versions of the Code of Federal Regulations, according to the FDA. During the inspection data-gathering process, the Egg Pad also conveniently converted FDA investigators’ handwritten notes into easy-to-read text, Cassens said.

“This new technology helped us better trend the data from inspections and also helped us better conduct more efficient inspections,” Cassens said. The Egg Pad program also contributed to standardizing the process of reporting and sharing farm inspection data between federal and state agencies. 

The software used on the Egg Pad, called The Egg Farm Inspection Prototype System, guided FDA investigators through a helpful, highly targeted “intelligent questionnaire.” The Egg Pad’s exclusive questionnaire came complete with convenient standardized, auto-filled dropdown answer menus that investigators used throughout farm inspections. “What we learned is that the intelligent questionnaire concept brought forth by the Egg Pad pilot program is truly a viable inspection option for future FDA inspections,” Cassens said.

While the Egg Pad’s intelligent questionnaire software will play a central role in the FDA’s future tablet-based farm inspection data collection operations, the Panasonic Toughbook tablet itself may not, reported Cassens. “Some of the feedback that we received from our investigators was that the Panasonic Toughbook made it somewhat difficult for certain applications running on it to be properly seen from within hen houses and such,” she said. “Accordingly we’re re-evaluating the Toughbook and considering different mobile hardware for the Egg Pad program as we move forward.”

Pulling from the data collected in the investigators’ observations, the Egg Pad automatically created a first draft of the final report, which could then be digitally archived and shared, as well as printed, if necessary. “The beauty of the Egg Pad system was that it seamlessly captured the data, organized it, and sent it directly to the right database,” Cassens said. “The investigator would immediately have the facts of the situation before them that they could then use to make informed decisions from, and also properly trend from much faster.”  

It's projected that the Egg Pad program saved the FDA approximately $70 million, partly because it eliminates the need for laborious field paperwork and costly transcription services, according to a video that the FDA posted YouTube. Another simpler, yet still significant benefit is that the Egg Pad can be quickly and easily chemically sanitized between hen house inspections, Cassens said, which significantly reduces the potential for cross-contamination.

The FDA eventually plans to use the Egg Pad tablet system to streamline many other types of food inspections, not just eggs, Cassens said.

Meanwhile, the FDA continues to embrace handheld mobile technology to streamline its food inspection operations. The agency is reportedly beta testing several similar tablet-based data collection systems, some of which may enable investigators to instantly access important information from the agency’s databases directly from the farms and other facilities they’re actively inspecting on-site.

Photo: This FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs field investigator is using the Egg Farm Inspection Prototype System, commonly known as the “Egg Pad,” to conduct egg farm inspections. With nearly 220 million eggs consumed each day, the FDA is making progress in improving the safety of this American food staple. FDA photo by Juan Jimenez

Kim Lachance Shandrow  |  Freelance Writer

Kim Lachance Shandrow is a Los Angeles-based tech journalist who specializes in writing about iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android phones, as well as social media marketing, startups, streaming TV, apps and green technology. Her work has appeared on Entrepreneur.com, NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC.com, NBC.com, and in The Los Angeles Times and The International Business Times. She also consults for Ameba, a Canadian multiplatform children’s streaming TV startup.