Date: Nov. 30, 2011
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Releasing Inspection and Testing Data on Meat and Poultry Processing Facilities With Care Could Have "Substantial Benefits"
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. It collects voluminous amounts of data at thousands of processing facilities in support of its regulatory functions and is considering the release of two types of collected data on its website. These include inspection and enforcement data and sampling and testing data -- such as testing for the presence of food borne pathogens like salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and listeria monocytogenes. Some of this information is already available to the public via the Internet but is aggregated and does not contain names of specific processing facilities. However, most of the data FSIS collects, with the exception of information that is considered proprietary, can currently be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The committee that wrote the report examined a substantial body of literature documenting the impacts of disclosing establishment-specific regulatory information similar to that collected by FSIS. Based on this information, the committee believed there are strong arguments supporting the public release of FSIS data that contains the names of processing facilities on the Internet, especially data that are subject to release under FOIA, unless there is compelling evidence that it is not in the public interest to release them. Several potential benefits of releasing such data include enabling users to make more informed choices, motivating facilities to improve their performance, and allowing research studies of regulatory effectiveness and other performance-related issues. More specific benefits might include better understanding on the part of the public relative to the kinds of information that have been collected, such as a greater appreciation for the quality, complexity, and potential usability of the data for specific purposes. Even if individual firms do not change their behavior in response to data posting, overall food safety could improve if information about performance leads consumers to favor high-performing facilities, effectively resulting in a shift in the composition of the market.
The benefits of releasing FSIS data must be balanced against potential unintended adverse consequences, the report says. These could include impacts on facilities' profitability, possible misinterpretation of the data, pressure on inspector performance, and unintentional release of proprietary or confidential information. However, the committee concluded that while adverse impacts are possible, there is limited systematic evidence documenting their likelihood.
Because of the complexity of issues associated with public release of data with facility names and the potential for adverse effects, the report suggests the need for an effective disclosure plan to inform the process. For example, potential adverse effects could be minimized if FSIS ensures the data's integrity, provides definitions of what is being quantified, and is careful to protect confidential information associated with particular facilities. To help make sure that the public release of the data will be useful, the committee suggested that FSIS define a timetable for its release and commit the resources necessary to allow the data's accessibility, quality, and timeliness.
Additionally, the report recommends that FSIS consult with other agencies that have released detailed regulatory data on the performance of individual facilities or firms, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, and several states and local public health departments that have released data on restaurant hygiene and inspection grading. The committee believes FSIS could build on these agencies' effective practices while designing its public data release program.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering,
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Pre-publication copies of The Potential Consequences of Public Release of Food Safety and Inspection Service Establishment-Specific Data are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources
Committee on the Study of Food Safety and Other Consequences of Publishing
Lee-Ann Jaykus (chair)
Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutritional Sciences
Julie A. Caswell
Professor and Chair
Department of Resource Economics
James S. Dickson
Department of Animal Science
John R. Dunn
Deputy State Epidemiologist
Communicable and Environmental Disease Services
Tennessee Department of Health
Stephen E. Fienberg*
Department of Statistics
William K. Hallman
Professor and Director
Department of Human Ecology
Ginger Z. Jin
Department of Economics
Food Safety Management and Regulation
SAGE Food Safety Consultants LLC
Donald W. Schaffner
Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor
Department of Food Science
Department of Economics
Christopher A. Waldrop
Food Policy Institute
Consumer Federation of
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
Camilla Yandoc Ables