WASHINGTON — Substantial benefits, including the potential to favorably impact public health, can be gained by publicly posting enforcement and testing data corresponding to specific meat, poultry and egg products' processing plants on the Internet, according to a new study from the National Research Council (NRC). The study was sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture.

The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.

Releasing such data could contribute to increased transparency and yield valuable insights that go beyond the regulatory uses for which the data are collected, the study stated.

The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service collects data at thousands of processing facilities in support of its regulatory functions and is considering releasing two types of collected data on its website. These include inspection and enforcement data and sampling and testing data, such as testing for the presence of food borne pathogens including Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes. Although some of this information is already available to the public via the Internet, it is aggregated and does not contain names of specific processing facilities, NRC relays.

Most data FSIS collects, however, excluding proprietary information, can be obtained by the public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

A substantial body of literature documenting the impacts of disclosing establishment-specific regulatory information similar to that collected by FSIS was examined by the committee that wrote the study. Based on this information, the committee believed there are strong arguments supporting releasing FSIS data that contains the names of processing facilities on the Internet to the public, especially data that are subject to release under FOIA, unless it is determined it is not in the public interest to release them.

Benefits of releasing such data include users can make more informed choices, motivating facilities to improve their performance and allowing research studies of regulatory effectiveness and other performance-related issues. Other benefits include better understanding on the part of the public relative to the kinds of information that have been collected, such as a greater appreciation for the quality, complexity and potential usability of the data for specific purposes.

Overall food safety could improve if information about performance leads consumers to favor high-performing facilities, effectively resulting in a shift in the composition of the market, should individual firms not change their behavior in response to data posting.

Benefits of releasing FSIS data must be balanced against potential unintended adverse consequences, the study cautions. These could include impacts on facilities' profitability, possible misinterpretation of the data, pressure on inspector performance and unintentional release of proprietary or confidential information. The committee concluded, however, that while adverse impacts are possible, there is limited systematic evidence documenting their likelihood.

Due to the complexity of issues associated with public release of data containing facility names and the potential for adverse effects, the study suggests developing an effective disclosure plan to inform the process. Potential adverse effects could be minimized if FSIS ensures the data's integrity, provides definitions of what is being quantified, and is careful to protect confidential information associated with particular facilities, NRC said.

The committee suggested FSIS define a timetable for its release and commit the resources necessary to allow the data's accessibility, quality and timeliness to help make sure that the public release of the data will be useful.

The study also recommends FSIS meet with other agencies that have released detailed regulatory data on the performance of individual facilities or firms, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), the US Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration, and several states and local public health departments that have released data on restaurant hygiene and inspection grading. FSIS could build on these agencies' effective practices while designing its public data release program, the committee said.