Adopting a practice with the potential for considerable long-term significance, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recently announced that it will soon begin sharing more food safety data regarding slaughter and processing facilities on

FSIS inspects meat, poultry, and processed-egg-product establishments to ensure that the food produced therein is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. Its inspections generate a large volume of data that is mainly made public in aggregated and/or summary format or through requests for data pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Citing several motivating factors (including the policies of the Obama administration and the Office of Management and Budget that have called for increased data sharing and greater transparency), FSIS began exploring in 2010 how to share establishment-specific data with the public. That effort resulted in FSIS’s Establishment-Specific Data Release Plan,2 published on July 11, which details the framework for release of the safety data that FSIS collects.

Under the plan, FSIS will initially share information on the processes used at each facility and provide more detail than is currently available in the searchable establishment directory, as well as provide a code for each facility that will make it easier to sort and combine future datasets by facility. Additionally, FSIS will release results for Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella in ready-to-eat products and processed egg products.

In its release plan, FSIS states that it will eventually share other datasets, including results for Shiga toxin producing Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella in raw, nonintact beef products; results for Salmonella and Campylobacter in young chickens and young turkeys, comminuted poultry, and chicken parts; routine chemical residue testing data in meat and poultry products; and advanced meat recovery testing data.

The FSIS will determine whether to release certain datasets to the public based on an evaluation of certain criteria, including

  • whether the data is already eligible for release through a formal FOIA request,
  • whether the data contains personally identifiable information for FSIS personnel,
  • the potential effect on the public’s health and on the regulated industry,
  • whether the data contains corporate proprietary data,
  • expected FSIS personnel and monetary costs to release and maintain the data,
  • the estimated utility of releasing the data,
  • the potential for misunderstanding or misuse of the data, and
  • the security implications to FSIS and the regulated industry.

The new datasets will be published on on a quarterly basis, beginning 90 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Putting the Obama Administration’s broader transparency goals aside, the announcement reflects FSIS’s pursuit of its own institutional goals as well. The agency continues to struggle with reconciling its long-term goals regarding pathogen reduction with the reality that, with the notable exception of some strains of E.coli in some beef products, raw meat and poultry that contain such pathogens remain eligible for the mark of federal inspection. The agency’s uncertain history with the concept of so-called “performance standards” is one reflection of this dilemma, and this data-sharing announcement is another. It seems clear that through this approach, FSIS is hoping that such publicity will provide additional stimulus for a race to the top in the area of pathogen reduction.