Concept of Food Surveillance

A Food Surveillance Program helps control and prevent food hazards. It is a critical component of the food safety assurance programs and intends to evaluate the safety levels in our food supply. Inspectors of the statutory bodies take samples at import, wholesale, and retail levels for microbiological, chemical, and radiation testing. Microbiological testing covers both bacteria and viruses, while chemical testing includes natural toxins, food additives, and contaminants, while radiation testing detects any harmful radioactive substances.

The food surveillance system is an instrument for the formulation, modification, and application of a country’s food and nutrition policy. Such surveillance intends to provide information on which policy decisions can are made. In many countries, the food and nutrition policy is also an official policy. Since such a policy affects several different sectors, a food and nutrition surveillance system is needed to collect, analyze and interpret information from these various sectors.

Monitoring can be defined as “the recording and analysis of routine measurements, aimed at detecting changes in populations’ environment or health status”.

Surveillance can be defined as “the ongoing systematic collection, collation, analysis, and interpretation of data, followed by the dissemination of information to all those involved so that directed actions may be taken” (WHO/CDS/CSR).

Surveillance refers to a specific extension of monitoring where obtained information is utilized to take measures if certain threshold values related to disease status have been crossed. The main objectives of surveillance are outbreak detection, monitoring trends in endemic disease, evaluating interventions, and monitoring program performance and progress towards a predetermined control objective.

A surveillance system can be meaningful only if it provides information to make decisions concerning the nutrition requirements of the community, state or country. In addition to providing data for research and academic purposes, a food surveillance system helps governments safeguard the population’s nutritional requirements. It further provides key insights on the current situation and trends about the occurrence and spread of human pathogens in the food production chain.

Need for Food Surveillance

The immediate objectives of a food and nutrition surveillance system are:

  • To describe the population’s nutritional status, with particular reference to defined subgroups that are at risk. This permits the description of the character and magnitude of the nutrition problem and possible changes in these features.
  • To provide information that contributes to the analysis of causes and associated factors and therefore permits a selection of preventive measures, which may or may not be nutritional.
  • To promote decisions by governments concerning priorities and the disposal of resources to meet the needs of both “normal development” and emergencies.
  • To enable predictions to be made based on current trends to indicate the probable evolution of nutritional problems. Considered in conjunction with existing and potential measures and resources, these predictions will assist in the formulation of policy.
  • To monitor nutritional programs and to evaluate their effectiveness.

In emergency settings, the objectives specifically focus on:

  • A warning system – As a means of highlighting an evolving crisis.
  • Identification of appropriate response strategies. These may include non-food as well as food assistance to address the underlying causes of malnutrition.
  • Triggering a response – Nutrition surveillance systems provide a trend analysis focusing on the magnitude of change. This may trigger an in-depth assessment, which in turn may lead to a response.
  • Targeting – Nutrition information can help target more at-risk areas or in greater need of assistance.
  • Identification of malnourished children. Some forms of surveillance can identify acutely malnourished children.

Achieving Food Surveillance

The following are the main methods used for surveillance:

  1. Large-scale national surveys;
  2. Repeated small-scale surveys;
  3. Clinic-based monitoring;
  4. Sentinel site surveillance;
  5. School census data.

In an emergency setting, additional data can be obtained from:

  1. Rapid nutrition assessments;
  2. Rapid screening based on mid-upper arm circumference

Implementing Food Surveillance

This section highlights the steps to develop and implement a successful food surveillance system:

  1. Organization
  2. Setting an activity
  3. Practical steps to be undertaken.

The decision to establish a surveillance system must be based on clearly defined objectives, considering the availability of resources, staff capacity, sustainability, environmental factors, and capacity to respond to emerging nutritional and nutrition-related health problems. Once the decision has been made to establish a surveillance system, the first step is to establish a central nutrition surveillance unit, which will organize all the activities of the nutrition surveillance implementation processes.

The key objectives are generally to

  • Support food inspection activities
  • Ensure compliance with legal limits for microorganisms and chemical contaminants in food
  • Ensure foods comply with legal restrictions on the use of certain ingredients and processing technologies
  • Ensure the authenticity of certain foods
  • Provide data for risk assessment and risk management activities identify the pathogens found in foodstuffs for monitoring trends and establishing public health priorities for control and prevention strategies
  • Remove contaminated products from the market
  • Detect outbreaks and assist with their investigation.

Surveillance involves the sampling and testing of foods. This can be done in many ways.

  • Predominantly, food samples are taken by food law enforcement officers and sent to food control laboratories funded by the state.
  • Samples can be taken at the time of inspection of a food business or taken randomly at the retail or wholesale level.
  • Samples can also be taken on foot of a food complaint or to support an outbreak investigation.

Therefore, a food and nutrition surveillance system assists in enabling formulation, modification, and application of a country’s food and nutrition policies through accurate data. The system is used to create appropriate response strategies. Nutritional status is a recognized outcome of human well-being; therefore, it is possible to understand a vulnerable population’s evolving situation better by closely monitoring the indicators that measure nutritional status.


    1. pdf (
    2. Food Surveillance Programme (
    3. sa=i&
    4. Food and nutrition monitoring in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2003 (Public Health Intelligence Occasional Bulletin, No. 19).
    5. Maire B et al. Nutritional surveillance: a sustainable operational approach. Antwerp, ITG Press, 2001. (Studies in Health Services Organisation & Policy, No. 19).
    6. Developing health management information systems: a practical guide for developing countries. Manila, World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific, 2004.
    7. Arnauld J, Alarcon JA, Immink MDC. Food security and food and nutrition surveillance in Central America: the need for functional approaches. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 1990, 12:26–33.
    8. Definition of food security. Washington DC, United States Agency for International Development, 1992 (USAID Policy Determination, No. 19).
    9. The harmonized training package (HTP): resource material for training on nutrition in emergencies, Version 2. NutritionWorks, Emergency Nutrition Network, Inter-Agency Standing Committee Global Nutrition Cluster, 2011.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *