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NRC Opens Door to Online Posting of FSIS Inspection Data

Posting the results of government meat, poultry and egg inspections and testing data could have “substantial benefits” to food safety, according to the highly respected National Research Council.

An NRC committee made up of agriculture experts and food safety advocates studied the possible consequences of publishing such detailed information on the Internet, and concluded that it could introduce a new incentive for processors to avoid disease-causing contaminants.

The federal Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) samples meat, poultry and eggs, looking for harmful contaminants. Information from those inspections and enforcement findings has previously been available to consumers and consumer advocacy groups primarily through the time-consuming Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. 

But FSIS has been considering whether to post on its website certain types of data from those inspections, including results of tests for foodborne pathogens such as Listeria, pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella.

The 97-page NRC report, released Wednesday, comes from a panel of independent scientists whose findings were subjected to peer review. Their report appears to clear the way for publishing such information in the future. The committee noted that there are good arguments that support the release of data, including the names of specific meat, poultry and egg processing plants.  

Making such data public would enable consumers to make more informed choices about what foods to purchase, while motivating processors to improve their food safety performance, the committee said. It would also make information more readily available to epidemiologists and researchers.

The NRC report drew immediate praise from consumer groups. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety specialist at the Committee for Science in the Public Interest, called it “a major step forward in the quest for a truly transparent food system.”

“CSPI has used FSIS data in the past to give consumers advice on which plants produced turkeys with the lowest rates of Salmonella,” she added.  “But in subsequent years we found it impossible to access usable data from FSIS to update those recommendations.”

The Research Council report underscores the argument that full disclosure of inspection data could have important benefits to public health.

However, the committee also acknowledged some downsides to full disclosure. Companies could be damaged by poor or inaccurate inspection reports. Data could be misinterpreted by consumers, and publication could put additional pressure on government inspectors.

But, on balance, the committee concluded that food safety would be enhanced by full disclosure.

 “Although the literature suggests that disclosure of information about the performance of a specific facility has the potential to affect the facility’s profitability,” the committee wrote, “it is precisely this possibility that creates an incentive for improved performance, which would constitute a benefit from the perspective of the public.”

FSIS should consult with other agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Labor, which already disclose regulatory data, the panel recommended. The group also noted that many local public health departments regularly release the results of restaurant inspections.

The Committee on the Study of Food Safety and Other Consequences of Publishing Establishment-Specific Data, was chaired by Lee-Ann Jaykus, professor, Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutritional Sciences, North Carolina State University. 

Other members of the panel were: Julie A. Caswell, professor and chair, Department of Resource Economics University of Massachusetts; James S. Dickson, professor, Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University; John R. Dunn, deputy state epidemiologist, Communicable and Environmental Disease Services, Tennessee Department of Health; Stephen E. Fienberg, Maurice Falk University professor of Statistics and Social Science, Department of Statistics, Carnegie Mellon University; William K. Hallman, professor and director, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University.

Also Ginger Z. Jin, associate professor, Department of Economics, University of Maryland; Gale Prince, consultant, Food Safety Management and Regulation, SAGE Food Safety Consultants LLC; Donald W. Schaffner, extension specialist in Food Science and professor, Department of Food Science, Rutgers University; Kathleen Segerson, professor, Department of Economics, University of Connecticut; Christopher A. Waldrop, director, Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America; and David Weil, professor, School of Management, Boston University.

© Food Safety News
  • jmunsell

    The NRC suggestions are valid, as are the concerns of poor & inaccurate inspection reports. Objective reports, such as microbiological lab reports of the presence of pathogens in meat & poultry would provide essential, sometimes embarrassing scientific statistics. Since all microbial samples conducted by FSIS are paid via taxpayer dollars, we taxpayers should be provided immediate access to lab findings on the internet. If FSIS were to aggressively test carcasses, intact cuts, and trimmings at all SLAUGHTER plants (which are the SOURCE of enteric pathogens…E.coli & Salmonella), the entire globe would know within one month which slaughter plants have inadequate kill floor protocol.
    (Unfortunately, FSIS is loathe to implement enforcement actions at the large SOURCE slaughter plants, which individually & collectively constitute a formidable litigation threat)
    On the flip side, subjective FSIS actions are commonly biased & inacurrate, as has been pointed out by Dr. Richard Raymond, who headed up FSIS from 2005 – 2008. Dr. Raymond posted six blogs on Meatingplace this year, in which he revealed unconscionable agency behavior aimed at victimized meat plants in MT. To summarize, Dr. Raymond revealed how FSIS authorities can fabricate dozens/hundreds of unjustified Noncompliance Records (NR’s)against plants which the agency has targetted for closure. Since his blogs, FSIS has dramatically reduced the incidence of NR’s at these MT plants, bringing them into line with the number of NR’s issued elsewhere in the country. These six blogs constitute a national scandal, which shows that ill-meaning FSIS bureaucrats can target innocent plants for closure, in the absolute absence of agency accountability.
    My point is that public disclosure of science-based, objective data would indeed be beneficial to the cause of food safety, while the release of typically falsified subjective data would be primarily designed to allow FSIS to publicly pillory innocent plants destined for agency closure, for personal reasons. Once FSIS has succeeded in eliminating the majority of small plants from Federal inspection, what will have been gained? Well, the source slaughter plants will continue to ship pathogen-laced meat into commerce (enjoying FSIS endorsement), resulting in yet more outbreaks and recalls. Secondly, we Americans will be eating more imported meat from countries which I’m convinced lack the standards mandated in America.
    John Munsell

  • John Munsell

    The NRC suggestions are valid, as are the concerns of poor & inaccurate inspection reports. Objective reports, such as microbiological lab reports of the presence of pathogens in meat & poultry would provide essential, sometimes embarrassing scientific statistics. Since all microbial samples conducted by FSIS are paid via taxpayer dollars, we taxpayers should be provided immediate access to lab findings on the internet. If FSIS were to aggressively test carcasses, intact cuts, and trimmings at all SLAUGHTER plants (which are the SOURCE of enteric pathogens…E.coli & Salmonella), the entire globe would know within one month which slaughter plants have inadequate kill floor protocol.
    (Unfortunately, FSIS is loathe to implement enforcement actions at the large SOURCE slaughter plants, which individually & collectively constitute a formidable litigation threat)
    On the flip side, subjective FSIS actions are commonly biased & inacurrate, as has been pointed out by Dr. Richard Raymond, who headed up FSIS from 2005 – 2008. Dr. Raymond posted six blogs on Meatingplace this year, in which he revealed unconscionable agency behavior aimed at victimized meat plants in MT. To summarize, Dr. Raymond revealed how FSIS authorities can fabricate dozens/hundreds of unjustified Noncompliance Records (NR’s)against plants which the agency has targetted for closure. Since his blogs, FSIS has dramatically reduced the incidence of NR’s at these MT plants, bringing them into line with the number of NR’s issued elsewhere in the country. These six blogs constitute a national scandal, which shows that ill-meaning FSIS bureaucrats can target innocent plants for closure, in the absolute absence of agency accountability.
    My point is that public disclosure of science-based, objective data would indeed be beneficial to the cause of food safety, while the release of typically falsified subjective data would be primarily designed to allow FSIS to publicly pillory innocent plants destined for agency closure, for personal reasons. Once FSIS has succeeded in eliminating the majority of small plants from Federal inspection, what will have been gained? Well, the source slaughter plants will continue to ship pathogen-laced meat into commerce (enjoying FSIS endorsement), resulting in yet more outbreaks and recalls. Secondly, we Americans will be eating more imported meat from countries which I’m convinced lack the standards mandated in America.
    John Munsell

  • Farmerella

    Is this similar to the feds going “scorched earth” after raw milk Amish farmers, while pussy-footing around with DeCoster? I keep hearing this theme repeated.

  • Former FLS

    In response to the entry from Mr. Munsell, while I concur with the bulk of his comment and in particular the reticence of FSIS to target the true source of pathogenic bacteria at the large, high speed slaughter plants, I must object to the third paragraph of his missive.
    I personally know several of the inspectors that have worked in the two Montana plants and I have read most of the Noncompliance Records that were written to document noncompliances in the two plants. In most cases the NRs were accurate, supportable and justified. In some cases multiple NRs were written that could have been combined into one; I challenged one of the inspectors on this and accused him of ‘piling on’…he agreed that they probably had. This notwithstanding, the bulk of the NRs were deserved due to poor maintenance and sanitation programs in those plants, not due to some preordained FSIS mission to close those plants.
    There are a couple reasons that the numbers of NRs have decreased in these two plants in particular, neither of which has anything to do with blogs submitted by Dr. Raymond. First, during the implementation of PHIS in Montana, there was a period of time that NRs could not be entered into the system, which obviously resulted in a decrease in the total number on record. More importantly, and as I have seen in one of these two plants that I have visited, conditions have been improved that result in fewer facility and sanitation-based noncompliances. In short, the decrease in the number of NRs is more a result of the system working as designed, not due to blogs. While I am no advocate of or for FSIS, the Agency is not always wrong, and the system does work. I am willing and eager to take on FSIS when they are wrong, but that is not always the case. From what I have seen and heard from multiple sources in Montana, FSIS was mostly on target here.