David Weil Contributes to NRC’s Report on Public Release of Food Safety Data

in Emerging Research, Faculty, Markets, Public Policy & Law, News
January 19th, 2012

Weil Is Prominent Scholar on Transparency & Governmental Disclosure

David WeilThe United States Government’s National Research Council, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, recently appointed Boston University School of Management’s David Weil, Everett W. Lord Distinguished Faculty Scholar and a professor in the Markets, Public Policy and Law Department, to the Committee on a Study of Food Safety and Other Consequences of Publishing Establishment-Specific Data. Along with fellow committee-members, Professor Weil was tasked with exploring the benefits of releasing, through the Internet, US Department of Agriculture and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) data about meat processing facilities in the United States.

“Information technology, social networking, and growing skepticism about both private and public institutions means that expectations for transparency are growing.”

–David Weil

The committee’s findings and suggestions have now been published in a report titled “The Potential Consequences of Public Release of Food Safety and Inspection Service Establishment-Specific Data.” The report’s recommendations are based on deliberations over six months. The committee sought lessons from academic studies, including past research by Professor Weil (and colleagues Archon Fung and Mary Graham) while also examining the experience of other government agencies in forming their conclusions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s publication of Toxics Release Inventory data, the disclosure of detailed enforcement data by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the public release of data on restaurant hygiene. All of these are systems that Professor Weil has researched and written about in past work.

The challenge of effectively and usefully releasing FSIS data is made clear in the report. “Members expressed different views about the implications of releasing inspection and enforcement data, and the potential adverse consequences of releasing this type of establishment-specific data,” the report explains. Members analyzed concerns ranging from inspector variability to confidentiality issues to the potential for misinterpretation of the data. On the basis of their review, Weil and his co-authors write, “the majority…believed strongly that public access to this type of data could help to identify variability in inspector performance and enforcement outcomes and ultimately facilitate more uniform inspection,” as well as lead, most importantly, to increased transparency and better public health.

The report also notes additional potential advantages arising from greater disclosure. Publishing information about facility-specific findings could yield insights and other benefits that go beyond the regulatory uses for which the data were originally collected, including:

  • Incentives to protect brand reputations, enhance customer bases, and boost earnings on the part of food companies due to consumer-fueled economic pressure to improve food safety.
  • Better insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both different processing and inspection practices, leading to improvements in food safety methods across the industry, increased consistency of inspector performance, and identification of effective practices in regulated facilities that could then be more broadly adopted.
  • Improved public understanding of the efforts made by FSIS and the industry to ensure food safety.

In addition, the publication of facility-specific findings would likely give rise to “a network of third-party analysts who, because of their familiarity with the data and their structure,” the committee writes, “could help FSIS to mine its own data and help individual companies or industry sectors to use the data to improve their practices.”

“The report lays out the issues that need to be carefully weighed in releasing detailed information about what government inspectors find at meat processing facilities.”

–David Weil

Weil and his co-authors also caution, however, that to maximize effectiveness and minimize adverse unintended consequences such as public confusion over the meaning of the information or the context in which it was gathered, any disclosure of data should rely on a well defined strategy—a topic about which Professor Weil has written extensively with Fung and Graham, particularly in their 2007 book Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency. This strategy should include identifying potential users and the differences among them, such as their varying abilities to understand the data in its raw form and the different ways the data might impact their decisions. The wide variation in user abilities to use data underlies the report’s argument that the FSIS should pursue the “broadest possible data release at the most disaggregated level,” since “users can always aggregate data for their analytic needs.”

Any strategy for the public release of data should also include a carefully timed, and well-explained rollout of data, allowing the public, as well as academics, members of scientific societies, and independent auditing agencies, to know what to expect and to provide time for these various users background to allow them to interpret the data accurately.

Access the full report “The Potential Consequences of Public Release of Food Safety and Inspection Service Establishment-Specific Data.”