Communication is vital in managing food risk, BfR

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food standards agency European food safety authority

Public perception of food risk is the important factor in
determining need for state intervention even if the scientific
point of view says the risk is low, according to the BfR, a view
that has a strong bearing on current issues like additives and
ingredient sourcing.

Attendees at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR)'s conference in Berlin were asked the question: "Do perceived risks justify state intervention?"

The consensus was that politicians must not only take into account scientific findings, but also factors like economic interests, loss of confidence in public institutions, and concrete fears of the population.

This view, which came from around 200 representatives of political circles, industry, science, associations and non-governmental organisations, has a strong bearing on the food industry at a time when consumer trust is not necessarily a given.

Risk-related issues concerning the food industry that have been hotly debated in recent times include avian 'flu, BSE, sourcing ingredients from China, food additives, and aspartame.

Management of the outbreak of BSE in the UK in the 1990s was a major factor in the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), following a confidence crisis in consumer health protection institutions.

The BfR said that this was a case where the gaps in knowledge and uncertainties in interpreting scientific data were not disclosed.

BfR president Prof Andreas Hensel said: "Almost every perceived health risk can quickly develop into a concrete risk.

"Besides the scientific assessment of risks and ensuing measures, open and comprehensible risk communication must be the third pillar when dealing with risks."

The institute maintains that, in order to avoid crises, state intervention is also needed in conjunction with perceived risks.

At present, EFSA is working on a European Commission mandate to reassess the safety of all food additives approved for use in the European Union over the last 30 years, starting with colourings.

So far it has delivered a verdict on just one, Red 2G, which it damned as a carcinogen and which has subsequently been banned.

The authority is also reviewing the Southampton study, published in The Lancet in September, which found a link between intake of a cocktail of certain food colourings and sodium benzoate and hyperactivity in children.

The UK's Food Standards Agency, which commissioned the study, has attracted criticism from consumer groups and food policy experts for its mild advice it issued in the immediate aftermath of the study's publication.

It said that eliminating the additives in question from the diet could have some benefits for hyperactive kids or those with ADHD.

Dame Deirdre Hutton, chair of the FSA's board, subsequently admitted that the agency could have handled communication of the matter better.

There is already a strong market trend towards natural ingredients and a resistance to E-numbers.

Even though natural additives are also allotted E-numbers in the EU, safety fears have, to some extent, tarred the whole category in the eyes of the consumer - even those over which there has never been any question.

When it comes to China, companies producing ingredients in the West have leveraged fears over safety and traceability to differentiate their own brands on the basis of known quality.

For instance, this year DSM opted to brand its vitamin C At the time, Gareth Barker, head of global marketing, human nutrition and health, told that this was an exercise in building awareness that opting for the cheaper material of uncertain provenance could have catastrophic consequences for a manufacturer and its brand further down the line.

The quality of the product is intrinsically linked with perceptions of the customer's consumer brand - and with wider, serious implications such as sustainability, the environment, and water supply.

Increasingly, consumer concerns about such matters are shaping markets, and it is down to ingredient manufacturers to respond by addressing the industrial aspects of safety, said Barker.

Co-incidentally, the BfR yesterday issued an updated opinion on the risk of Alzheimer's disease from aluminium packaging, drawn up in July.

It still maintains that there is no scientific proof of a risk of Alzheimer's from use of aluminium in consumer products.

Even so, incorrect use of aluminium-containing food contact articles leading to the unwanted migration of aluminium to food should be avoided for reasons of precautionary health protection.

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