Sense of proportion vital in determining food risk

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety

The chief executive of the UK's Food Standard Agency (FSA) used
last week's keynote speech to discuss food safety detached from the
everyday context of media hype and public scare stories.

Speaking at the Society of Food Hygiene Technology Annual Lecture in London's Millennium Mayfair Hotel, Dr Jon Bell underlined the importance of balancing public fears and actual risk.

"Within a week or two of accepting this talk on food safety and proportionality, the agency found itself in the thick of the South Wales E. coli outbreak,"​ he said.

"The biggest of its kind since the Lanarkshire outbreak in 1996, and one that has had tragic consequences."​ A child is believed to have died as a result of eating infected meat.

Bell argued that the incident highlights the need for a re-examination of whether or not the public - and the FSA - has still got food borne illness in proportion.

"Before the South Wales E. coli outbreak, I think it is probably fair to say that food poisoning had declined as a serious problem in the public imagination,"​ he said. "Our annual consumer attitudes surveys over the past few years had shown gradual decrease in consumer concern about food poisoning - in contrast to an increase in concern about other food issues around diet and health."

Nonetheless some issues have incredible resonance with the public. BSE was the one issue, above all others, that led to the establishment of theFSA in April 2000.

"It has the powerful combination of being both unknown, and to have what psychologists call a high 'dread factor',"​ said Bell. "And, on top of that, it is something we have no personal control over.

"Put those three elements together and the effect is to magnify the size of the risk in people's minds."

The agency's approach to the BSE review from the start, said Bell, has been to make sure that actual risks and the level of public acceptability of the risk were both taken fully into consideration. This approach has now led to the abandonment of the OTM (Over Thirty Months) regime, because it was felt to be no longer proportionate now that cattle can be tested for infection at the time of slaughter.

"The latest figures show there were 90 new clinical cases of BSE in cattle in Britain in 2004, compared with nearly 2,000 in the year 2000 and over 37,000 cases at the peak of the epidemic in the early 1990s,"​ said Bell.

The impact of the Sudan 1 scare, when an illegal carcinogenic food dye was found in a range of foods, was also discussed. On 7 February this year, Sudan 1 was found in a batch of its Worcester sauce - and the public went ballistic.

"Our website peaked at over 15 million hits per day on 21February - 17 times the daily average - and double thecapacity we usually fall back on to handle rises in websitetraffic resulting from food incidents,"​ said Bell. "I'm told that at one point our website was accounting for one per cent of all UK web traffic."

Bell wonders whether the FSA - and the public - blew the incident out of proportion. The cost to businesses of dealing with the incident ran to hundreds of millions of pounds, for a risk to the individual consumer that was unquantifiable, but undoubtedly very small.

"But the advice of the experts was to assume that Sudan 1could be a genotoxic carcinogen and, as such, dietaryexposure should be as low as reasonably practical - andthat has to be zero for something that had beendeliberately added,"​ said Bell.

"Yes, the risk was very small - as we made clear all along.But the presence of Sudan 1 was illegal. If we had turned a blind eye, what signal would that have given to anyone thinking about adding other illegal substances?"

Ultimately, Bell wanted to use his speech to draw a line of distinction between what constitutes a food risk and a food scare.

"Avian flu provides us with a very topical example toillustrate this, when a potential risk turned into a scarevirtually overnight last month,"​ he said.

"I'm not aware of any evidence that avian flu has ever beentransmitted via food - all the human cases to date havebeen in people working closely with diseased poultryflocks. But when an EFSA scientist was interviewed about therisks last month - and repeated long-standing foodhygiene advice on cooking chicken and eggs - that setthe media hares running, and the news bulletins and thetabloids were filled within with what had been a story-in-waitingabout killer chickens."

Bell says that as a public protection body, it is the FSA's role to help define - onbehalf of the consumer - what needs doing, or fixing or improving. "Our expertise lies in pulling together the evidence and working to build agreement and consensus,"​ he said.

And as he points out, one of the reasons the agency was set up in the firstplace was to restore public confidence in food, and experience has shown that public confidence depends on quick and decisive action that protects consumers.

Related topics: Science, Food Safety & Quality

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