Releasing inspection and testing data on meat and poultry processing facilities could have substantial benefits, a new U.S. National Research Council report says.
Internet posting of data corresponding to specific meat, poultry and egg product processing plants could improve public health, among other benefits, according to The Potential Consequences of Public Release of Food Safety and Inspection Service Establishment-Specific Data, issued by the council, part of the National Academies.
The US Department of Agriculture collects large amounts of data at thousands of processing facilities as part of efforts to ensure the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products. The department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is considering release of both inspection and enforcement data and sampling and testing data on its website. This information includes data on tests for the presence of such pathogens as salmonella. Some of this information is already available online in aggregated form without processing facility names, and most of the FSIS-collected data can be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act.
The committee that wrote the report looked at information on disclosing similar sorts of information and concluded there are strong arguments for publicly releasing FSIS data, including the names of processing facilities. Releasing the information could allow users to make more informed choices, spur facilities to improve performance and allow research studies of regulatory effectiveness. Release could also increase public understanding of the information collected and could improve food safety if the public shifts to better-performing facilities.
The report acknowledges that the benefits of release must be balanced against such potential unintended harm as lower profits, misinterpretation of data, pressure on inspector performance and unintentional release of proprietary or confidential information. The committee found limited systematic evidence indicating the likelihood of such problems, though.
The report calls on the FSIS to consult with other agencies that have released detailed regulatory data on individual facilities’ or firms’ performance, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration and state and local public health departments that have released information on restaurant hygiene and inspection grading.