As part of the information-gathering phase of the study, the Committee on a Study of Food Safety and Other Consequences of Publishing Establishment-Specific Data met with representatives of FSIS; a representative of the US Environmental Protection Agency Toxics Release Program, which has experience in public posting of establishment-specific data; and members of the meat and poultry industries. Although there is some evidence on the effects of release of some types of FSIS data (for example, recalls), the committee’s approach to assessing the likely advantages and disadvantages of routine posting of establishment-specific FSIS data was to review evidence of effects based on the experience of other government agencies in releasing such data. The committee also identified general data-release issues that need to be considered and, in light of the unique nature of FSIS data, deliberated on the value of giving the public access to establishment-specific data, with a focus on effects on food safety and public health.
The committee’s major findings and conclusions are as follows:
- Public release of regulatory data is motivated by two broad purposes. The first addresses the public’s right to know about the actions of government. The second, “targeted transparency”, seeks to use information disclosure as a means of achieving specific public-policy objectives. The committee concluded that both those purposes are relevant to the desire of FSIS to release establishment-specific data and that an effective disclosure policy will contribute to increased transparency to stakeholders. In addition, releasing establishment-specific data might also favorably affect public health in ways whose assessment could be contingent on the development of measures specifically designed to evaluate the effects.
- The committee identified several examples in which federal, state, or local agencies release detailed data that are directly linked to the performance of individual facilities or firms or to their products. In many cases, those data originate in regulatory (compliance and enforcement) activities. Three relevant examples are efforts supported by the US Department of Labor (for example, in the Mine Safety and Health Administration), by the US Environmental Protection Agency (for example, in Enforcement and Compliance History Online [ECHO]), and by several state and local public-health departments (for example, through restaurant hygiene and inspection grading). The committee concluded that FSIS would benefit from consultation with those agencies and could build on their effective practices when designing a public-data release program.
- There is a substantial body of literature on the effects of disclosing establishment-specific regulatory information similar to that collected by FSIS. The literature suggests that release of these sorts of data can have important benefits. Through a review of the literature on the experience of other public agencies, the committee identified a number of potential benefits of public release of establishment-specific FSIS data, including providing incentives to protect brand reputation in food safety or to protect or enhance customer base and profitability; allowing downstream users to identify companies whose performance records are below and above the industry average and potentially to create economic pressure to improve food safety; providing better insights into strengths and weaknesses of different processing practices, which could lead to industrywide improvements in food-safety practices; enhancing performance benchmarking; and improving the consistency of inspector performance. The committee concluded that