The FSA plans to use more co-ordinated intelligence gathering and horizon scanning, including statistical analysis and intelligent software called Memex patriarch, to make it more effective.
Its existing incident classification system and the National Intelligent Model used by the UK police will then help to rank potential risks.
However, there are serious concerns that this will not guarantee any better early warning of unexpected events, such as Sudan 1 in 2005 or the Melamine incident in 2008.
Speaking at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia, School of Medicine Health Policy and Practice, questioned the ability of such systems to ever reliably predict unexpected events.
“We are extraordinarily bad at predicting what the next big thing will be,” he said. “The danger with this system is that you fall into the trap of thinking you have covered everything that is important. You still need lateral thinking.”
FSA systems don't talk to local authority systems
FSA Board members echoed Hunter’s concerns. Dr David Cameron and Margaret Gilmore also asked why the FSA’s IT systems were not being integrated with those used by local authorities, such as the real-time system used to monitor food imports at Heathrow Airport.
The FSA’s director of food safety Alison Gleadle remarked that while the whole purpose of the programme was to “get ahead of the game”, she accepted “we will not always catch the unknown unknowns”.
And while the Agency was working with the food industry to prevent incidents occurring, she noted that issues of commercial confidence sometimes made the sharing of data difficult.
FSA emerging risks programme
The FSA’s emerging risks programme began in April last year and runs to 2015. It aims to ensure risk-based, targeted checks at ports and local authority monitoring of imports throughout the food chain.
The programme involves the acquisition of intelligence based on historical incident data, research and surveillance programmes as well as intelligence from stakeholders, including the food industry itself and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
It also draws on data provided by the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, Food and Drug Administration recall data and World Health Organisation information.