In an opinion published last Friday, the Scientific Committee of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said that the adoption of what it called a "harmonised and transparent scientific" approach would make it easier for food firms to avoid dangerous substances.
This approach, called the "margin of exposure" (MOE) approach in assessing risks associated with certain substances, makes it easier to differentiate between different levels of risk. It can therefore assist risk managers in deciding if and where further actions are required in order to reduce exposure to such genotoxic and carcinogenic substances.
There is growing public and regulatory concern over genotoxic materials, which can damage DNA, and carcinogenic substances that can lead to cancer in food. Acrylamide for example hit the headlines in 2002, when scientists at the Swedish Food Administration first reported unexpectedly high levels of the carcinogenic substance in carbohydrate-rich foods, such as crisps, cooked at high temperatures.
Since the Swedish discovery a global effort has been underway to amass data about this chemical. More than 200 research projects have been initiated around the world, and their findings co-ordinated by national governments, the EU and the United Nations.
The advice given by risk assessors up until now in Europe has been to keep exposure to such compounds at the lowest possible level. But this approach, known as the ALARA principle "(as low as reasonably achievable)" does not allow scientists to distinguish between different levels of risk.
The advantage of the MOE approach is that it allows the comparison of risks posed by these substances based on their individual potency and on possible levels of exposure in the population. According to the EFSA, the MOE approach can therefore better support risk managers in defining possible actions required to keep exposure to such substances as low as possible.
The European Commission now intends to initiate dialogue with the food industry regarding the possible application of the MOE approach in managing risks associated with such substances where found in food. EFSA is also organising an international conference in collaboration with the World Heath Organisation (WHO) and with the support of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI Europe) on 16 to 18 November 2005 in Brussels.