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.