The National Research Council released a report today stating that “publicly posting enforcement and testing data…on the Internet could have substantial benefits, including the potential to favorably impact public health.”
The release of inspection data in an easy to use format would mark an important step by the U.S. government in creating transparency in the meat, poultry and egg industries, and could mean startups and researchers alike would have reliable data, and more of it, with which to inform and educate the public about the food we eat.
The study looked at the potential of releasing data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) which regulates meat, poultry and processed egg products. FSIS is considering releasing two types of data already collected for safety purposes: inspection and enforcement data and sampling and testing data. While some of this information is already available online and through Freedom of Information Act requests, the new releases would include processor names and would be aggregated.
As food recalls become commonplace, and the American public increasingly desires more information about the food they eat, high-tech tracking systems like those engineered by the Whole Chain Traceability Consortium and IBM are in the works. Yet the release of inspection data of this kind by the U.S. government would be a first in the food industry and a welcome addition to information already available to the public.
The report added that public access to such data would increase transparency and “yield valuable insights that go beyond the regulatory uses for which the data are collected.” The committee studied previous reports detailing the impact of releasing “establishment-specific regulatory information” such as the data FSIS collects. It found the “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,” in addition to “overall food safety improve[ments] if information about performance leads consumers to favor high-performing facilities, effectively resulting in a shift in the composition of the market.
Drawbacks to releasing data, the report noted, could be potential profit loss for companies, misinterpretation of data and the unintended release of information.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.