Opinion

If You’ve Got Nothing To Hide…

Under the mantra of ‘Open Data’ the Food Standards Agency wants to publish the data acquired through post-mortem inspection in chicken slaughterhouses. This is the first in a number of steps – or thin end of the wedge, depending on your perspective – that will see the FSA publish 95% of the data it holds by April 2017.

Identification of emerging issues, technological improvement through peer-to-peer comparison, and quicker communication of results are all among the benefits that sharing data could bring. Unfortunately, none of these are realistic if the publication consists of little more than putting a set of numbers into the internet.

To be of real use, whether that’s technological advances, regulatory improvements, or better informing consumers, data sharing has to have context and meaning. It has to aid knowledge and understanding. It has to have purpose.

Within the production chain, inspection reports are used by farmers, vets, regulators, and Food Business Operators to monitor bird health and welfare and to guide improvements in both the farm and slaughterhouse. Inspection in poultry plants doesn’t contribute to food safety or public health. If the audience is to be expanded, it has to be justified and with a planned outcome. Simply being able to publish data is not intrinsically a reason for doing so.

Industry is understandably nervous. Not specifically about sharing data; as a single source of data supports a healthy and open debate. Rather there are concerns about the accuracy and consistency of data, and the potential for wilful misuse.

We are talking here about the impact on responsible and compliant businesses, whether in perceptual or commercial terms. The FSA has a responsibility for discretion with the data of the sectors it regulates. We share data with the FSA for projects and for efforts toward improving legislation, but there may be less willingness if it goes straight on to a public website. We need to be fully aware of why data is collected, what it is used for, and finally, what it means.

The competent authority role is a burden at a time when all government departments and agencies lack resource. If the FSA lacks the resource to do more than publish data, then industry can shoulder additional responsibility. But to shovel data into the public domain because that ticks the ‘looking like you’re doing something’ box, and without thought for the consequences, is irresponsible.

Collecting data is important, and ensuring it is used responsibly even more so. There is so much we want to do to improve and refine practice and legislation, and this is where we should focus resource. This open data debate feels like activity is being mistaken for achievement.

This article was first published in Meat Management magazine (July/August 2016).

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