Smart phones help speed up hop inspections

OLYMPIA -- Blackberries in farm fields aren't always the edible kind.

Workers in the Washington State Department of Agriculture are using the electronic devices -- official name BlackBerry -- to speed the inspection process for hops and save money at the same time.

And in the future, the devices could help trace quality or contamination issues in the food supply by quickly finding out where crops came from -- right down to the field.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks food-borne illnesses, says they cause about 76 million illnesses each year. According to the CDC, more than 300,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 a year die from food-borne illness, some caused by E. coli or salmonella in food.

Having data collected and stored from inspections at farms may speed up identifying where contaminated food was grown or raised, state officials say.

"Our food safety program is very interested in these applications," Agriculture spokesman Mike Louisell said.

"It would help to get to the cause of an outbreak more quickly because we know what fields they came from," he said.

Inspectors who grade hops started using BlackBerries this season to get information on hop shipments into data systems more swiftly.

It has sheared 27 percent, or more than $40,000, off the hop inspection program's cost and reduced mistakes by eliminating the 60-year-old paper system.

Inspectors no longer write down information, go back to the office and re-enter the information into a computer, said Royal Schoen, who runs the Chemical & Hop Laboratory in Yakima.

Using the smart phones also speeds up the process for growers and buyers.

Washington hops, primarily grown in Yakima and Benton counties, are shipped to more than 100 countries worldwide, Schoen said. The inspection process is a massive effort, with 270,000 bales of hops that need to be tested by state inspectors.

Using BlackBerries allows the state to get the inspectors where they are needed and helps the agency use staff more efficiently, Schoen said.

It also lets growers know much more quickly how much seed, leaf and stem is ending up in their hops so they can adjust their picking machines.

Hops with less seed, leaf and stem fetch a higher price for growers, said Ann George of the Washington Hops Commission.

"It is important to a grower if his picking is clean," she said. "But it's kind of a fine line, the cleaner you pick, the more clean hops end up in the garbage. You want to keep as many hops as possible to get the premium price."