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Democratizing Data, Food Edition

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, June 15 2009

The Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2749) -- drafted by Rep. Henry Waxman, introduced by Rep. John Dingell and now moving through the House on what looks like a fast track -- has ambitions of fundamentally changing how data about the U.S. food supply is tracked from points of production all the way to our tummies. H.R. 2749 would, if passed as written, be a considerable shift in how the U.S. handles food. But what's of particular interest to us data-minded eaters in these parts is what the bill has to say about applying a modern open-data governing approach to the nearly opaque process by which food today travels from farms to our forks.

Try as we might, we're more or less all low-information eaters. In the U.S. today, it's often impossible to trace where the many constituent parts of every hamburger, salad, or burrito we eat come from. What the Waxman-Dingell food safety bill would do is mandate is that the Food and Drug Administration create a pointedly digital system linking food production to food distribution. And it would do it in ways that echo our broader discussions of government data; there's the imposition of a standardized data format, there's an interoperability requirement meant to eliminate gaps between reporting channels, and there's a provision establishing a common nomenclature for food items, so one distributor isn't calling "scallions" a product that just was recalled under the name "green onions." (It's similar, you might notice, how campaign-finance reform advocates wrestle with name standardization challenges where records for a Billy Smith and William Smith Jr. don't match up).

Beyond simple data standardization issues, the bill empowers the Secretary of HHS to make public food safety data, as long as doing so doesn't put the U.S. food supply in jeopardy. Sec. 107(c) and Sec 121(c) in the discussion draft of the bill for all the gory details on how H.R. 2749 aims to build an improved U.S. food system through, in part, more and better data.

If the food reform bill manages to become law without being significantly diluted, it's potentially powerful stuff -- made all the more impactful, perhaps, by the fact that it empowers the Food and Drug Administration to know far more about the food we eat at the same time FDA is taking steps to make itself more transparent.