Shopping for transparency

by Bernard Shire
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Soon, shoppers and consumer groups will have a much easier time getting information about government actions taken against meat and poultry plants, thanks to a new policy by the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As part of a plan that was seven years in the making, FSIS will be releasing information and data about enforcement and inspection actions every three months, as well as testing and sampling results in individual plants that are under USDA inspection.

USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Al Almanza, who is also the longtime FSIS acting administrator, said the agency already collects a huge amount of information about plants during inspections.

“We analyze this data on an ongoing basis to detect emerging public health risks, and then we take steps to create policies that will help prevent foodborne illnesses,” he says. He noted consumers want an increasing amount of information about all the different types of foods they purchase. If the agency shares these details, he says, consumers will have better insight into how their food is produced and how it is inspected by the government, and they can make better-informed decisions about buying it.

According to FSIS, the agency currently employs about 7,500 inspectors working in about 6,000 meat, poultry and processed egg products inspected plants, as well as about 120 ports of entry into the US every day. Reports show the agency has reduced foodborne illnesses that are associated with FSIS regulated products (poultry, meat and processed egg products) by 12 percent by adopting a data-driven approach to regulating and inspecting, identifying and preventing food safety issues.

The data that’s specific to individual FSIS-inspected plants will be available to the public on data.gov, the open data portal maintained and run by the US government. This plan was put together in response to the US government’s “open government plan,” a push created by the Obama Administration when it first came into office.’

Before now, the release of FSIS information about individual plants was very limited and happened rarely. What has been posted is usually in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, enforcement actions taken against plants that violate humane slaughter laws and the names of young broiler processing plants and how their Salmonella test results measure up to FSIS performance standards.

The FSIS FOIA office, like a lot of other US government FOIA offices, is a large operation that instructs people how to submit requests, as well as maintaining a “reading room” where frequently asked for FOIA records can be found. But it is an expensive proposition for ordinary people to request FOIA records, while it costs FSIS a lot of time and labor to respond to the requests. People who ask for the records often have to wait a long time to receive them. But even under FOIA, FSIS hasn’t been sharing plant specific information about violations, inspections, enforcement, sampling and testing, or other data with the public.

The whole idea behind this new policy is to help shoppers make better choices when purchasing meat and poultry while motivating individual poultry and meat plants to improve their performance. Ultimately, the goal is industry-wide improvements in food safety by providing better insight into the strengths and weaknesses of processing practices in the industry, FSIS believes.

The new information will be published on a quarterly basis in the form of “datasets” including the processes used at each inspected plant, with more detail that now can be found in the establishment directory that FSIS publishes frequently. There will also be results for Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella in ready-to-eat products.

USDA will also then begin sharing information and results about Shiga Toxin-producing E. coli and Salmonella in raw, non-intact beef products; results for Salmonella and Campylobacter in young turkeys and chickens, chicken parts and ground poultry; routine chemical residue testing data in poultry and meat products, and advanced meat recovery testing data.

This Establishment-Specific Data Release Plan was in response to a call for greater openness in government by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In 2010, FSIS began talking to its stakeholder groups, including the National Advisory Committee on Meat & Poultry Inspection, and the National Research Council on this issue. FSIS is hoping to make data publicly available that could yield insights even going beyond the regulatory uses for which the data was originally collected.

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