Expert Report

The Potential Consequences of Public Release of Food Safety and Inspection Service Establishment-Specific Data (2011)

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Report in Brief >>

The release of food safety data gathered during federal inspections of meat, poultry, and egg product processing establishments such as slaughterhouses, warehouses, and retail stores would help increase transparency and could lead to improvements in public health. For example, purchasers, consumers, and public interest organizations could use the data to identify companies with performance records consistently above or below the industry average, potentially creating economic pressures on food processing establishments to improve food safety. However, in order to maximize its effectiveness and minimize unintended adverse consequences, data release should be guided by a carefully designed information-disclosure strategy.

Key Messages

  • During the course of its testing, sampling, inspection and enforcement activities, the Food Safety and Inspection Service collects large volumes of food safety data, some of which are made publicly available on its website. However, most of these data are aggregated, for example by geographic region, production type, establishment size, and pathogen, and in most cases there is insufficient information provided to link data to specific food industry establishments. While the public can obtain some disaggregated data through the Freedom of Information Act, initiating and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests can be time-consuming and costly for the requester and the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
  • In recent years there have been efforts to facilitate openness in government, including an administration requirement for federal agencies to publish information online in a timely manner and in a format that can be easily retrieved, downloaded, and indexed by the public without the need for Freedom of Information Act requests. As part of these efforts, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is now considering giving the public access to its establishment-specific food safety data.
  • The concept of publicly posting government-generated data is not new. In response to calls for increased transparency and information provision, several government agencies, including regulatory agencies responsible for protecting human health and safety, now regularly post detailed data on the Internet. There is a substantial body of literature documenting the impacts and uses of publicly released data, showing that public access to facility-specific performance data can have both benefits and costs. The previous experiences of other agencies can help predict the potential benefits and adverse impacts of posting Food Safety and Inspection Service establishment-specific data.. In addition, the Food Safety and Inspection Service could build on effective practices developed by other agencies when designing a public-data release program.
  • The public release of establishment-specific Food Safety and Inspection Service data would increase transparency by supporting the public's "right to know," and providing improved information to support decision-making. Releasing Food Safety and Inspection Service establishment-specific data could also potentially motivate individual companies and sectors of the food industry to improve their overall food safety efforts, for example by providing incentives to protect brand reputation in food safety in order to protect and enhance customer base and profitability.
  • Evidence of adverse effects resulting from the public release of establishment-specific data by other government agencies is insufficient to predict what might occur were the Food Safety and Inspection Service to release similar data. The committee identified a number of potential costs and unintended consequences that public release of establishment-specific data might have, including the financial commitment associated with designing and maintaining a useful data disclosure system, and the potential for drawing inappropriate conclusions as a result of misinterpretations of the data, particularly if appropriate context is not provided to the user.
  • Some parties may be negatively impacted by public data disclosure, but different parties may have different perspectives on what constitutes a negative impact. For example, although company might suffer initial reductions in the stock market prices following the release of data by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, ultimately this might serve as an incentive for improved performance, constituting a benefit for the public.
  • To maximize effectiveness and minimize the potential for adverse unintended consequences, data disclosure needs to be guided by a carefully designed information disclosure strategy that considers the utility of the data to be released, the presentation of data, and the means by which to assure that data are continuously updated and improved.
  • Seeking input from stakeholders—for example, from industry, academia, and consumer groups—would provide the Food Safety and Inspection Service insight on their needs and concerns. This would facilitate continuous improvements to data disclosure as users gain a better understanding of how the data might be used, and as the agency responds to stakeholder input.
  • Currently, there are no direct measures to quantify how public access to establishment-specific food safety data will translate to specific food safety improvements. However, insights into the relationship between data release and food safety can be gained by monitoring outcomes from the release of establishment-specific food safety data (such as increased compliance with regulatory requirements) and the usage of the data (through metrics such as the number of web downloads or peer-reviewed reports citing the posted data).