A panel has recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture make meat and egg inspection data more accessible to the public, a move that could provide a rare glimpse into the operation of the 10 federally inspected meat, egg and poultry operations in South Dakota, including the John Morrell meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls.

In a report issued Wednesday, the National Research Council said creating an online database of the information collected by the 8,000 “front-line” employees of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service could provide substantial food safety and public health benefits.

Federal inspectors test for E. coli, listeria, salmonella and other pathogens. Large plants such as Morrell are inspected continuously.

As it stands, bacterial sampling data and inspection reports are nominally public, but information for specific establishments must be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. These requests can take weeks or months to fulfill, and the reports provide little context to help an average reader interpret the data.

Access to regulatory information is “basic to democratic governance,” the report said, and building a public database would allow third-party researchers to glean “valuable insights that go beyond the regulatory uses for which the data were collected.”

“Public release of establishment-specific data would be expected to improve food-safety efforts,” said panel chairwoman LeeAnn Jaykus, a researcher at North Carolina State University.

The research council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote the report at the request of USDA to help the agency fulfill an executive order from President Obama to make executive agencies’ compliance data more accessible. The cost of fulfilling FOIA requests also was an argument for more disclosure, the report said.

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Source: ArgusLeader.com