Strategic surveillance for food safety

Objects useful in emergency situations such as natural disasters, photo by photka/Adobe Stock

photka/Adobe Stock

Because the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) needed an approach to strategic surveillance, researchers designed an approach to strategic surveillance as well as an effective approach to selecting and prioritising topics and improving communication and coordination. Gathering quality data, information and knowledge from stakeholders is important but a recognised challenge.


In late 2017, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) sought to develop an approach to strategic surveillance for food safety that is data-driven, proactive and flexible. The present approach to food surveillance is a regime of sampling of food products (e.g. meat, honey, whisky, etc.) by local authorities. Instead of traditional sampling, the FSA wants to embrace modern analytic techniques and availability of diverse data sources to create a new way of identifying risks to public health from food.


RAND Europe was commissioned by the FSA to help them identify the requirements for a data driven approach to a strategic surveillance programme for the UK food system, and use these to design the process. Specifically, the project aims were to:

  • Design an approach for strategic surveillance that can provide a highly reliable source of robust data and intelligence across the FSA and the UK food system.
  • Formalise the appropriate stages into a process flow, ensuring the high-level end-to-end cycle is mapped, understood and priority implementation stages approved with key stakeholders.
  • Identify tools and techniques to implement each step of the approach.
  • Develop detailed awareness of areas of work required to fully implement the end-to-end approach, including preliminary recommendations on the feasibility and impact of the steps being implemented.


The research team conducted interviews with senior members of the FSA to determine the system requirements, which included discussions on the current approach to strategic surveillance and stakeholder mapping. The team used a bottom-up analysis of the key themes from the interviews and a top-down analysis of the existing FSA approach to inform a detailed process-mapping exercise. Analysing the process revealed a number of proposed implementation steps which were presented to a workshop of FSA stakeholders, who ranked the feasibility and impact of each step to generate the recommended implementation steps presented in the report.


The guiding principles for a strategic surveillance system

The study team derived guiding principles that should shape the overarching design for the strategic surveillance approach:

  • Cyclical rather than linear: as insights are gained from carrying out the approach, improvements can automatically feed back into the system to improve it.
  • Iterative: to support learning, iteration between steps of the approach is encouraged. This is particularly important between the ‘Collect and Collate’ and ‘Analyse and Produce’ steps.
  • Flexible and adaptable: as knowledge is gained about specific topics, or the delivery of the overarching surveillance programme, the approach can be refined to allow continuous improvement.
  • Time agnostic: the approach can be used quickly to investigate specific topics, but can equally be applied over a longer period to support the overarching surveillance programme.

Steps of the approach

The study revealed that the FSA needed an approach to strategic surveillance – rather than a process-driven list of steps to complete that was too rigid. Instead, a more cyclical model with a series of feedback loops was a more appropriate design and best described the approach the FSA envisaged for a future surveillance programme. The approach for food system strategic surveillance designed by the study team was comprised of a number of discrete processes and guiding questions:

  1. Plan and direct: What are we going to do and who is going to do it?
  2. Collect and collate: How do we get usable data?
  3. Analyse and produce: How do we make assessments from the data?
  4. Report and disseminate: How do we communicate our assessments?
  5. Evaluate and review: How do we improve the process?


RAND Europe has proposed implementation steps for the FSA to consider in three broad areas:

  1. Adopting an effective approach to select and prioritise topics.The approach should use a data-driven, repeatable and informed decision making process. Undertaking forecasting and horizon scanning activities could also help to identify “unknown unknowns”.
  2. Improving communication and coordination. The surveillance programme should continue to identify and engage stakeholders, while the FSA should increase its visibility among stakeholders to assist data collection and future action. There is also a need to define the process for acting on and communicating assessments.
  3. Gathering quality data, information and knowledge. The approach should continue leveraging existing data and link together data sources to exploit insights. To support this, the FSA could compile a data catalogue based on metadata. Skills, knowledge and experience should also be captured to assist the FSA to structure problem solving and implement the approach.

Based on engagement with stakeholders during the study, these steps were considered to offer impact and to be feasible, and should therefore offer significant benefit to the strategic surveillance programme.