Food risk will be a defining issue of a 21st century marked by globalisation and foodborne illness. Safety experts gathered at the weekend in the US to examine new methods to minimise risk.
Finding a common thread, speakers on risk assessment of food thrashed out approaches for countries as diverse as Malaysia and the United States that currently have different approaches to assess risk for foodborne illness.
"Scientific risk-based policy is overtaking the cultural and political debate about food," said Ewen Todd, who organised the symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle on Saturday, referring to the US?recent single case of mad cow disease.
In November the European Union considered risk perception such a needy subject that it merited a 600-delegate conference attended by ministers, civil servants and a host of scientists. A fact mirrored by the US this weekend.
"Countries are creating policies based on risk, not on culture. The current systems of testing and release of products have not proven very effective in reducing foodborne illness," added Todd, director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State university.
Speakers at the symposium included Jorgen Schlundt of the World Health Organisation. The UN-backed organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), along with WHO, is in the process of drafting risk assessment strategies for 21 foods.
Karen Hulebak of the US Department of Agriculture represented the Codex Alimentarius Commission from the perspective of the Committee on Food Hygiene, the biggest issue being 'How will the Codex standards affect trade??Isabel Walls of International Life Sciences Institute spoke about a final report that the ILSI has drafted that describes risk to different types of populations, including the sensitive immuno-compromised population.
Finally, Leon Gorris from Unilever provided the industry perspective on risk assessment, and how it can aid in product development and design. The biggest issue? What is the cost to industry, and consequently to consumers to control risk?
The global incidence of foodborne disease is difficult to estimate, but WHO maintains that in 2000 alone 2.1 million people died from diarrhoeal diseases. "A great proportion of these cases can be attributed to contamination of food and drinking water. Additionally, diarrhoea is a major cause of malnutrition in infants and young children," said the organisation.
In industrialised countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 per cent. In the US for example, around 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths, are estimated to occur each year.