It has been just over a year since a widespread salmonella outbreak in the the US led to the recall of half a billion eggs. In the ensuing food safety scare, egg producers at two Iowa companies were hauled up before Congress to explain the deplorable conditions – including oozing manure, live rodents and flies too numerous to count – in their henhouses.
Now a report released on 30 November by the National Research Council (NRC) puts that episode along with the broader issue of food inspection back in the public spotlight. In the report, an expert committee convened by the NRC at the request of the US Department of Agriculture came out strongly in favor of free, easy public access to the voluminous data gathered by the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on individual meat and egg processors. These data include results of laboratory tests for baterial contaminants such as salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and listeria monocytogenes, records of facility inspections and enforcement actions taken as a result of inspections.
Currently, some of the inspection data can only be obtained by filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act while those data that are more accessible typically do not include the names of specific food-processing faciltiies. For instance, one might be able to find how many E. Coli tests the FSIS conducted in ground beef so far in 2011, and how many had positive results. Company names would be available only in cases of product recalls.
The committee of the NRC – which is part of the National Academies – was asked by the department to assess the implications of making virtually all inspection, enforcement, sampling and testing data publicly accessible over the internet and linked to specific, named facilties.
The report says that such a move could have “substantial benefits” to the public, including allowing consumers to make informed choices, stimulating companies to improve their performance and providing better insights into the strengths and weaknesses of specific processing techniques.
“There are strong arguments supporting public release of establishment-specific FSIS data… unless there is compelling evidence that it is not in the public interest to release them,” committee chair Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor in the department of food, bioprocessing, and nutritional sciences at North Carolina State University in Raleigh told a conference call of reporters and stakeholders this morning.
She added that the increased transparency would also be good for research. “The committee believes that third party analysis is going to be an important use of this data.”
While the report calls for the department to provide meaningful context to help consumers make sense of a massive quantity of data, it doesn’t provide specifics about how that can be achieved – an omission which rankled at least one stakeholder.
J. Patrick Boyle, the president of the American Meat Institute, calls the report “well-intentioned, but concerning,” because continuous USDA inspection of plants generates huge amounts of data and reports every day. Putting them in meaningful context “is going to be nearly impossible” says Boyle, “given the different sizes of plants, volumes, types of livestock processed and nature of product produced. Without an appropriate context, a massive data release will only serve to confuse and possibly alarm the public about the products.“
A leading food safety advocacy group has hailed the report. It represents “a major step forward in the quest for a truly transparent food system,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC. She adds: “Importantly, the committee formally recognized the consumers’ fundamental “right to know” as an important reason that information should be publicly accessible.”
The NRC recommendation would also seem to be in keeping with a 2009 executive order from US president Barack Obama calling for more transparency in government. However, Obama’s Office of Management and Budget this summer reversed a move by the National Institutes of Health to make the size and nature of its grantees’ financial conflicts of interest readily accessible on a public website. Instead, that information will be made available by individual institutions if members of the public request it.