In order to preserve public confidence in food safety, nations often employ surveillance strategies to monitor incidences of foodborne disease. This enables rapid identification of emerging threats for timely public health response in addition to data gathering for creating appropriate food industry policies by government. Pei et al. (2015) provide a summary of microbiological foodborne disease (FBD) surveillance programs in China since their initiation in 20001.
The authors define microbiological surveillance as a system for collecting data on FBD contamination that relays information on these pathogens to interested bodies including federal departments. These surveillance programs involve a number of organizations in roles including testing and monitoring, administration and oversight, and data collection and dissemination.
In 2000, the national Department of Health began surveillance of FBD pathogens in domestic foodstuffs. Based first on monitoring Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella species and Escherichia coli O157:H7, the program covered only a limited number of food matrices. These represented the most common food safety risks encountered for microbiological FBD contaminants. The Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention both encouraged a national surveillance program, and in 2003, the Ministry of Health instituted the Food Safety Action Plan.
In 2009, surveillance increased to encompass two hygiene indicator bacteria and nine FBD pathogens in a wider variety of food matrices that included more of the common foodstuffs consumed by the Chinese population. Surveillance increased even further in 2010 to encompass farming and processing sales in addition to retail and catering environments, with enhanced facility for wider monitoring and sampling.
With these steps, the government passed the Food Safety Law of the Peoples Republic of China in 2009, which set out the legal responsibilities and requirements for food safety microbiological surveillance. Since its revision in 2015, the law now includes risk prevention and improved surveillance.
Currently, microbiological FBD surveillance operates under joint oversight from a number of government departments according to the 2015 law. The Chinese Food Safety Association (CFSA) provides technical oversight and guidance, training surveillance staff and managing quality control/quality assurance procedures among laboratories. It also collates and manages the data to identify food safety issues, issuing reports for future planning and legislation. Currently, this database holds more than 2,000,000 pieces of data from 500,000 samples. Most of the pathogens identified are bacterial, but the data do include information on parasites (mostly nematodes) and Norovirus.
Regional oversight and implementation come from provincial health departments; in the period between 2000 and 2009, participation increased from 32.3% of provinces to 71%, with a rise from 10.5% to 51.2% of cities involved. Funding is central and the national government issues an annual plan for the regions to follow.
Although not currently implemented, Pei et al. expect long term planning to be initiated in the future. The Health and Family Planning Commission already issues annual advisories to the National Food Safety Surveillance plan for the appropriate industry, government and regulatory adoption. This comprises a draft proposal that is refined through consultation into a final document based on food safety priority areas. These include high hazard foods such as those from aquatic sources, foods affecting vulnerable groups, widely consumed foodstuffs, those with a history of past risk, and products identified with posing potential hazards from overseas.
The program employs three types of surveillance:
- Routine – monitors a wide range of FBD pathogens for overall assessment
- Special – monitors source and critical control points
- Emergency – allows rapid escalation for food safety threats and emerging issues
To date, microbiological surveillance has identified current trends, areas of risk and seasonal differences in incidence that help officials formulate food safety protocols and regulations. It has shown notable successes in issues surrounding infant formula and raw aquatic foodstuffs. In the future, Pei et al. note that since sampling is still relatively low, the surveillance program will need to increase to allow comprehensive and systematic risk assessment, especially at the local level.
Describing China’s microbiological food surveillance program as a powerful tool in development, the authors also suggest that incorporating advances in information technology will facilitate data gathering and sharing.
Learn more about food microbiology testing in our food and beverage community.
1. Pei, X. et al. (2015) “Microbiological Food Safety Surveillance in China“, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 12 (pp.10662-70); doi:10.3390/ijerph120910662