An government-commissioned study has come back with eight recommendations to improve food safety surveillance in the United Kingdom.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) commissioned the study by RAND Europe in February 2018. In late 2017, the agency started work on an approach to strategic surveillance for food safety that is data-driven, proactive and flexible. RAND Europe is a not-for-profit research organization that works on public policy.

The present approach to food surveillance includes random product sampling by local authorities. Instead of traditional sampling, the FSA wants to use modern analytic techniques and diverse data sources to create a new way of identifying risks to public health from food.

Researchers created an approach to strategic surveillance, to selecting and prioritizing topics and improving communication and coordination.

An FSA spokeswoman said the agency is still developing the approach to surveillance.

“We commissioned this research to assist with the design and implementation of a strategic surveillance system for the U.K. food system and are currently working on implementing the recommendations made by RAND Europe,” she said.

The recommendations are:

  • Selecting and prioritizing topics should be undertaken using a data-driven, repeatable and informed decision making process;
  • FSA should undertake forecasting and horizon scanning activities to identify unknown unknowns;
  • The surveillance program should continue to identify and engage stakeholders;
  • There is a need to define the process for acting on and communicating assessments;
  • FSA should increase its visibility amongst stakeholders to assist data collection and future action;
  • The approach should continue leveraging existing data and link together data sources to exploit insights;
  • FSA should compile a data catalogue based on metadata; and
  • Skills, knowledge and experience should be captured (i.e. in the form of a skills and methods catalogue) to assist the FSA to structure problem solving and implement the approach.

RAND Europe analysis took a top down approach by using existing FSA models and a bottom-up look by clustering themes from interview data to produce a proposed operating model for strategic surveillance. The research team interviewed senior members of the FSA to determine system requirements.

“The overall approach was designed to be flexible, evolutionary and adaptable, instead of a rigid process; it provides a guiding structure and foundation upon which the FSA can start implementing strategic surveillance and evolve the approach as the FSA grows in maturity with respect to surveillance,” according to the report.

The seven week study designed an overall approach to strategic surveillance with five steps: plan and direct; collect and collate; analyze and produce; report and disseminate; and evaluate and review.

The initial operating model designed by the FSA had the four main steps of scan, spot, narrow and evaluate, as well as a fifth step of share/publish that leads to action such as. starting an investigation, issuing a product recall or notifying other government departments or agencies outside the surveillance system.

To ensure the approach met the FSA’s needs, the study team tested it against two cases previously looked at by the FSA under its surveillance program; olive oil adulteration and contamination of shellfish with Vibrio bacteria. Testing showed the approach was appropriate for the two cases since there were no steps undertaken in them that did not appear in the overall approach.

The FSA is aiming to have the recommendations completed by early next year.

Meanwhile, the National Audit Office is looking at effectiveness of current regulatory arrangements to ensure that food is safe to eat and is what it says it is.

The report is due this summer and builds on work from October 2013 on food safety and authenticity in the processed meat supply chain.

NAO is looking at whether the FSA has evidence that the regulatory system is effective in achieving outcomes and driving performance improvements and if the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and FSA have established a coherent and coordinated regulatory regime that can adapt to current and emerging challenges.

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