Surveillance of Foodborne Pathogens on the island of Ireland



Executive Summary

Chapter 1 Introduction

foodborne pathogens report coverThe collection of data for the purpose of managing food safety includes both monitoring and surveillance. Monitoring is a system of collecting, analysing and disseminating data. Surveillance is an extension of monitoring where the information collected is utilised for applying active control measures. Effective surveillance requires the timely collection, analysis, interpretation and feedback in order to take the appropriate action.

In recognition of the general function of safefood in the surveillance of foodborne disease, the safefood Scientific Advisory Committee established a working group on foodborne pathogen surveillance. The role of this group was to advise the Scientific Advisory Committee on the developments necessary to strengthen foodborne pathogen surveillance on the island of Ireland.

This report addresses foodborne pathogen surveillance on the island of Ireland in human, food and animal domains, in Chapters 2, 3 and 4, respectively. Each of these chapters details responsibility for the current systems on the island of Ireland, describes recent advances, outlines ongoing developments, identifies opportunities for improvement and provides recommendations. Chapter 5 provides an overview of the role of research in the surveillance of microorganisms in the food chain and foodborne disease. The report presents a vision for surveillance on the island of Ireland in Chapter 6.

Chapter 2 Surveillance of human infectious intestinal disease

Because of the relatively short incubation period for infectious intestinal disease, optimal control is dependent on rapid availability of surveillance data. In relation to the surveillance of human infectious intestinal disease it is noted that the issues of data comparability, collation and timely dissemination are key. The developments in electronic reporting provide an opportunity for greater comparability of data whilst the provision of reference services on the island of Ireland is also underpinned by timely communication of good quality data. The quality and comparability of data from surveillance institutes on the island of Ireland is also highlighted. In addition it is noted that the capacity to assign cases of infectious intestinal disease to particular food vehicles responsible for disease is an essential element that would permit optimal allocation of resources to foodborne disease control and prevention. It would also feed in to a risk-based approach for the management of food pathogen risks throughout the food chain.


2.1. With the establishment of the new Public Health Agency in NI, the possibility of introducing case-based reporting and linking laboratory and clinical information at a central level should be investigated;

2.2. Periodic reporting on an all-island basis using standardised infectious intestinal disease data submitted to EU from NI and ROI should be performed by HPS NI and the HPSC in cooperation with safefood;

2.3. The provision of a comprehensive human Enteric Reference Service should be pursued in ROI;

2.4. In each jurisdiction final reports on all general outbreaks  should be collated centrally. Key surveillance information and lessons learned should be formally disseminated within the system as appropriate with the aim of sharing best practice in the prevention and control of future outbreaks;

2.5. Funding agencies on a jurisdictional or ideally on an all-island basis, should consider commissioning source attribution studies to determine the proportion of infectious intestinal diseases that is foodborne on the island of Ireland;

2.6. NI and ROI should move towards operating with the same core surveillance data set.

Chapter 3 Microbiological food safety surveillance

Monitoring and surveillance activities along the food chain continuum enable the detection of hazards so that systematic control and intervention strategies can be adopted. Microbiological food safety surveillance data may be generated during official control activities conducted by the competent authorities or during testing conducted by food business operators. In each jurisdiction, National Control Plans outline the systems of official control measures and responsibilities to ensure the effective implementation of appropriate surveillance and monitoring activities covering all stages of production.

There are many examples of recent advancements in microbiological food safety surveillance in each jurisdiction which include the establishment of the Northern Ireland Strategic Committee on Food Surveillance and the recent availability of historical data from NI through the Food Surveillance System (UK) which enables risk-based sampling activities to be directed. There are, however, opportunities to enhance microbiological food safety surveillance on the island which include addressing the lack of uniformity in food coding systems used in each jurisdiction; the coordination of priority food surveys on an all-island basis; and the current variability of electronic capture, analysis and dissemination of surveillance data.


3.1. Microbiological food safety surveillance and source attribution should be improved by establishing a process to improve data sharing and coordination of food monitoring, and risk assessment activities amongst appropriate stakeholders on the island of Ireland by:

a. Addressing diverse food coding systems;
b. Compatibility of sampling programmes;
c. Electronic data capture and analysis;
d. Feedback mechanisms to stakeholders;
e. Exploring the use of under-utilised data sources for example Food Business Operator (FBO) data.

Chapter 4 Surveillance of food animals

Animals may be exposed to pathogenic microorganisms of public health significance from a range of sources. Disease surveillance systems for food animals in both Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland (NI) are broadly similar in scope as they both comply with the same EU legislative framework. Various sources of information contribute to veterinary surveillance, ranging from clinical observations by farmers and veterinary surgeons, ante- and post-mortem observations at the abattoir or diagnostic facility, diagnostic test results from veterinary laboratories and international surveillance systems and alerts.

A number of baseline studies have been conducted or are underway which provide comparable data between EU member states for the first time and provide a reference for the setting of pathogen reduction targets.

There are opportunities for enhancing the surveillance of foodborne pathogens through more systematic sharing of surveillance data between partners that would strengthen collaboration, provide better scope for directing work, reduce the potential for duplication, improve the ability to detect unforeseen gaps and optimise ability to identify new and emerging issues. Improved detection of the links between human and animal disease and the ability to use animal health data as an indicator of potential human health problems would better inform decisions about disease management and risk.


4.1. There needs to be more regular interactions between animal health agencies with those responsible for food safety and human health on the island of Ireland including more timely and effective sharing of data;

4.2. The National Zoonoses Committee (ROI) and Regional Zoonoses Group (NI) together should be supported and enabled to conduct an analysis of regular surveillance data on a shared basis;

4.3. Annual or more frequent meetings of the 2 committees (National Zoonoses Committee (ROI) and Regional Zoonoses Group (NI)), should be facilitated by safefood, to share experiences and surveillance data and to review current trends both in foodborne disease and surveillance methodologies, and to consider new approaches, as necessary;

4.4. The feasibility of enhancing the data collected in NI from any future EU baseline surveys should be considered to supplement the NI sample to provide representative information that would be compatible with that from ROI;

4.5. Detailed consideration should be given to the feasibility of making the NI submissions on surveillance to the UK bodies and to the European Commission available concurrently for consolidation with comparable data from the ROI with a view to providing a more extensive data base for risk assessment on an island of Ireland basis.

Chapter 5 Role of research in the surveillance of microorganisms in the food chain and foodborne disease

Considerable research activity that is relevant to foodborne pathogen surveillance is conducted on the island of Ireland by a range of stakeholders across human, food and animal domains. It was noted that access to research-derived information in a timely manner by policy makers, food and feed enforcement authorities and analytical laboratory staff may be hampered by the peer reviewed scientific dissemination channels commonly used. As a result there are a number of challenges to the use of research-derived data viz. its timeliness and the traditional dissemination channels and difficulties in deriving implications of findings for policy and food safety practice.


5.1 There is a need for the coordination of research relevant to foodborne pathogen surveillance on an island of Ireland basis where a clear all-island benefit is identified. The potential for such a development should be discussed by organisations that publicly fund research on island of Ireland;

5.2 Broaden participation in safefood networks to include particularly stakeholders not involved in research and explore new mechanisms of information dissemination that allow early access to surveillance data by all interested parties.

Chapter 6 A vision for foodborne disease surveillance on the island of Ireland

The key themes that emerged from the review of microbiological food safety surveillance across the human, food and animal domains are linkages between key surveillance stakeholders; all-island considerations; comparability of data; data sharing; source attribution studies; and inter-disciplinary working. From this a clear vision for foodborne pathogen surveillance on the island of Ireland was established:“Surveillance playing its full part in securing the safety of food”

In an island of Ireland context, the adoption of the measures recommended in this report on a jurisdictional basis, through regular meeting of all relevant stakeholders and structured sharing and interpretation of data, as well as meetings on an island of Ireland basis, will begin the journey to achieving the developed vision. Options for achieving the above should be considered including particularly developing the Regional Zoonoses Group in NI and the National Zoonoses Committee in ROI as a possible means of facilitating the achievement of this vision. The role for safefood in achieving the vision is also recommended.


6.1 safefood should conduct a targeted consultation exercise with key surveillance stakeholders on the island of Ireland on the recommendations and the vision presented here;

6.2 safefood should present to the NSMC a strategic proposal for enhancing foodborne pathogen surveillance both in each jurisdiction and on an island of Ireland basis.