USDA turns nutritional data into open data

The Agriculture Department is putting a public health twist on the Open Data Initiative, and building on a database that many Americans already use without even knowing it.

The Agriculture Research Service is gathering information from food manufacturers and improving its database of nutritional information for food items that make it to grocery stores.

“So anyone who is producing food that ends up in our grocery stores, we’re working with them to get the data from their labels and the packaging information to come right into the database for us,” Pamela Stark Reed, deputy administrator for Nutrition, Food Safety and Quality, said on Information Management month.

The database has actually existed for over a century, Reed said. But before starting the initiative, it only had about 8,000 entries. Since opening it up to manufacturer submission, ARS has received 80,000 new items, a 1000 percent increase.

“We’ve had manufacturer’s data before, but never at the extent that we’re starting now to import it into the database,” Reed told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

The information all comes directly from manufacturers, then undergoes quality control measures at ARS to ensure it lines up correctly and no mistakes were made.

Reed said most Americans use this database already without realizing it.

“This is actually already available. When you go to Google certain nutrients … Google actually goes to the ARS database to get their information for that. So it’s fully available now for your iPhone,” she said.

The database also allows people to compare and contrast similar items, which can be helpful for consumers concerned about getting the most nutritional value for their dollar.

The goal for the database is to eventually expand to 1,000,000 items. Reed said ARS anticipates getting store brand and international food items into the database soon. Some items from chain restaurants may follow.

Because of this, the agency is looking into cloud services to increase its storage capacity.

One thing the database will not include, however, is recall information. Reed said that’s regulatory, and lies in the domain of the Food and Drug Administration, not ARS.

“We’re a research agency, so we put out scientific research, things that will help the researchers as well as the general public. Our domain isn’t in any part of regulatory or policy, so that would come from one of those other agencies,” she said.