Nov 30, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Publicly posting the federal testing and enforcement data on meat, poultry, and egg product facilities could have important public health benefits, as long as the information is accurate, is easy to understand, and protects companies' proprietary information, according to a report today from the National Research Council (NRC).
As part of the Obama Administration's goal for more transparency in government, an NRC committee was asked to review the impacts of disclosing establishment-specific information similar to what the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) collects during regulatory activities.
The NRC, along with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), is part of the National Academies, an independent advisory group that assists federal agencies.
The FSIS is considering releasing on its Web site two types of data that it collects: inspection and enforcement findings and sampling and testing results, such as for Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, and Listeria, according to an NRC press release. Most of the data can already be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act.
In a 97-page report, available on the NRC Web site, the committee listed several potential benefits of releasing the data, such as more detailed information for consumers, motivation for facilities to improve their performance, and research materials on regulatory effectiveness and other food safety issues. Information about performance could sway consumers toward high-performing facilities, which could result in market shifts, the NRC said.
The possible downsides could include impacts on firms' profits, possible misinterpretation of data, pressure on inspector performance, and unintentional release of confidential information, the committee found. However, it concluded that the likelihood of those consequences is supported by only limited evidence.
At a public telebriefing today to release the report, committee chairwoman Lee-Ann Jaykus, PhD, professor of food science at North Carolina State University, said the committee didn't have a lot of food safety examples to draw from when considering the data-release issues. She said the group examined the Environmental Protection Agency's experience with sharing companies' toxic release information with the public, Department of Labor mine safety data, and restaurant inspection reporting by state and local health departments.
Jaykus said the group considered several potential drawbacks of releasing the information, including possible misinterpretation of the data, the possibility that firms would shore up reported areas at the expense of unreported ones, and possible impacts on inspector performance. However, she said the group's deliberations came out strongly in favor of publicly releasing the data.
The group also addressed ways that the food safety benefits of the data releases could be measured, she said.
Chris Waldrop, who served on the committee as a food safety and consumer expert, told CIDRAP News that the report provides the FSIS with a host of issues to think about and is a roadmap for moving forward. Waldrop is director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, but did not represent the group on the NRC committee.
He said the federal agencies must sometimes grapple with complex issues, and the pros and cons of facility inspection and enforcement data release are topics that the NAS is well poised to address.
Waldrop said it's difficult to tell right now how the data might be used, if the FSIS proceeds with the plan. Examples of stakeholders include researchers, consumer groups, the media, and plant owners, who could benefit from gauging how their facilities are performing compared with similar companies. "This will generate new information and ways of looking at things," he said.
The FSIS, in a prepared statement e-mailed to CIDRAP News, said it appreciated the NRC's thorough report on the public release of its data and is reviewing the recommendations.
"FSIS is interested in increasing the public's access to information about meat, poultry, and processed egg establishments we inspect to ensure increased transparency, greater accountability, and in the end a stronger system to prevent foodborne illness," the agency said.
"We will give considerable thought to determine the types of information to make available to provide the maximum public benefit."
Meanwhile, the report's recommendations are raising concerns among some food industry groups. In a comment e-mailed to CIDRAP News, American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle said the NRC recommendations on USDA data and record sharing are well intentioned, but the massive amount of data and reports generated from the nation's meat and poultry inspection systems every day will pose tough challenges.
"Providing access to consumers requires that the information be provided in a meaningful context, and given the nature of the records generated, that context is going to be nearly impossible to establish, given the different sizes of plants, volumes, types of livestock processes, and nature of products," he said.
Without the right context, the large volume of data might only confuse and alarm the public about the products, he added. "It is essential that if USDA-generated data and records are released, USDA must also convey to consumers that no product is released from an establishment until the product is inspected and passed as wholesome."
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said in a press release that today's announcement is a victory for consumers and food safety and is a major step toward a more transparent food system.
She said the CSPI has used FSIS data in the past to guide consumers on which turkey plants have the lowest Salmonella rates but hasn't been able to access usable data to update the information. "Now, the NAS has concluded decisively that access to this data could lead to valuable public health benefits, and should be shared without undue delay," DeWaal said.
Nov 30 NRC press release
Nov 30 NRC report
Nov 30 CSPI press release