So much activity goes on behind closed doors (literally) in the meat and poultry industries. But what if previously unavailable or difficult to obtain regulatory data collected from private processing plants suddenly became public? A report from the National Research Council (NRC), released at the request of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), indicates that the benefits resulting from such openness would be "substantial."
The NRC is one of the four National Academies, which are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice. According to the report, posting inspection and enforcement data as well as sampling and testing data (i.e. Salmonella and E. coli lab test results) corresponding to specific meat, poultry, and processed egg products' processing plants is a good idea. Benefits would include "enabling users to make more informed choices, motivating facilities to improve their performance, and allowing research studies of regulatory effectiveness and other performance-related issues."
If enacted and adequately implemented, this transparency would show the public what whistleblowers have been trying to shed light on all along. At GAP, whistleblowers come to us citing documentation of industry violations that are rarely acknowledged and routinely go unaddressed. Regulatory data, if made public, would provide consumers an inside glance at what's really happening.
Currently, data that's already publicly available (online) is aggregated and not facility specific. What data FSIS does share with the public is often only available through the tedious Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process – which often heavily redacts data deemed proprietary. Freely posting the information (hopefully not completely redacted) to the web would save time for interested consumers, public interest groups, and government FOIA workers – in effect saving taxpayer dollars.
The move to bring more food safety information to the public falls in line with the Obama administration's stated push for increased transparency across federal agencies. Realistically, though, we can't ignore the fact that Big Ag is an expert at hiding information as proprietary (just look at Idaho).
When it comes down to it, on-the-ground whistleblower protection is still invaluable. Making data more readily available would certainly be important, but without strong legal safeguards for truthful insiders, industry wrongdoing will continue to evade accountability. Remember, industry is aware what regulatory matters the database does and does not disclose. There is nothing stopping industry wrongdoers from focusing attention on areas where results are publicly released at the expense of equally important food threats – underscoring the constant need for whistleblowers to continue serving as the public's eyes and ears.
GAP continues to push for better protection for federal workers, which would include USDA inspectors, in the pending Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act. We've also joined with coalition partners to advocate for the Safe Meat & Poultry Act, a bill that provides a whistleblower provision for meat and poultry industry workers in addition to other food safety measures (introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in September).
Let's hope both of these pieces of legislation make it through Congress, while efforts to increase food industry transparency keep Big Ag in check, as suggested by the NRC report.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.