Food industry innovation increases challenges for risk assessment

French Pavilion

Part of the French pavilion at Expo Milano 2015. [Henriette Jacobsen]

While the European Commission wants the food industry to become more innovative and create jobs in Europe, the analysis of the risk factors also has to evolve, says the EU’s food safety agency. EURACTIV reports from Expo Milano 2015.

The food sector is one of the biggest industrial sectors in Europe and it is seen as key by the Commission as creating jobs and bringing Europe back to growth if it can keep developing more technologies and inventing new products. At the same time, Europe also has one of safest food systems, and that can’t be jeopardised. Striking the right balance between innovation and safety will continue to be a challenge for the industry. 

Speaking at the Milan Expo during the food industry’s congress week on Thursday (2 July), Wim Debeuckelare, Legislative officer at the Commission’s DG Sante, stressed that Europe has a food safety system it can be proud of, which has improved a lot since the food scandals of the 1980s and 1990s.

He said that Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis is convinced that the food industry can contribute to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to transform Europe with more jobs and greater prosperity, particularly due to innovative SMEs. But there should be no safety concerns, Debeuckelare stated.

“We can count on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to do the necessary risk assessment. When we have the risk assessment, then we still need, according to our rules, to look at the technological benefits and needs. Proportionality is something we should bare in mind. We need to look at whether the potential risk really outweighs the benefit,” he said.

Photo from the French pavilion at the Milan Expo.Photo from the French pavilion at the Milan Expo.

Tobin Robinson, head of the Science Strategy and Coordination department at EFSA, highlighted the difficulties the agency has in taking on a holistic approach to risk assesment. For example, whenever EFSA is looking into the potential risk for humans of a chemical residue or a heavy metal, the assessment has to include how it also affects water and air quality and how it develops in different situations.

“There is the whole lifecycle thinking, trying to take the big picture approach to risk assessment. For example, sometimes we are told by our colleagues at the Commission to carry out a risk assessment of a particular substance in a particular context. This could be a food package material, and we can do that quite easily, but what would be also meaningful would be to do a whole lifecycle risk assessment of that material. If that food package material, and the chemicals in it, has entered the environment through the way it is dealt with, then maybe we as risk assessors haven’t really done a good job,” Robinson said.

The EFSA representative called for more and better technology available to the experts who are performing risk assessments, and are facing more and more complicated tasks. He said the food safety watchdog’s experts have to be up to speed on unique risk assessments, particularly when it comes to novel foods, nano technology and animal cloning.

“Here again, we need to make sure that food safety isn’t a brake on innovation,” Robinson said.

Gert Meijer, deputy head of Corporate Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at Nestlé, said that at the moment, reducing the environmental footprint and improing the quality of raw materials are some of the most important research challenges for the industry.

He indicated that the food industry now might be going more in a direction of taking additives out of foods, rather than adding them.

The Expo Milano 2015 is a Universal Exhibition in Milan, Italy, running from 1 May to 31 October, 2015. 

The Expo is showcasing pavilions from more than 140 participating countries and highlight future challenges in the area of food: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the planet and its equilibrium.

The organisers also want the Expo to be a platform for the exchange of ideas and shared solutions on the theme of food, stimulating each country’s creativity and promoting innovation for a sustainable future.

  • 1 May-31 Oct.: Milan Expo.

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