EFSA tries to educate consumers about chemical residues in food


Posted By: Selerant RSA

Chemfood

On 14 April, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a new type of report aiming to educate consumers on realistic meaning of chemical residues in food. In EFSA’s words, it “aims to give non-specialists a balanced view of the findings of annual EU-wide monitoring of levels of chemicals in food. The report will be published annually.

Industry as well as governmental food safety experts are often frustrated with chemical residues in food being often reported in media without context, that leads to consumers’ misinterpretation of the actual risks. This is an important institutional attempt to ease off public pressure on governments to act and tighten food safety rules, via an credible explanation of the complexity of food risks.

So, little surprising, the European Commission’s acting Director General for Health and Food Safety, Ladislav Miko, praises the report and hopes to see more in the future: “This new report aimed at the European public translates complex scientific data on food in a more accessible and understandable way.”

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The report “Chemicals in Food 2015” provides a decoded overview of  formerly already published data. In the 2015 report four topics are tackled:
  • pesticide residues in food
  • veterinary drug residues in animals and animal-derived foods
  • arsenic in food and drinking water
  • ethyl carbamate in spirit drinks

It is great example of EFSA’s transparency, providing many detailed facts: each chapter presents latest monitoring figures, information on regulation and standards and additional explanation boxes on risks. It also responds to critics addressing hot topics, like exposure of infants and the problem of multiple residues. Information on scientific uncertainty gives further strength: this crucial element is often demanded by risk communication experts and plays a key role in risks’ misunderstandings. Consumers should understand this, to better accept ongoing process of risks re-interpretation and re-assessments.

Yet some clarification on specific regulators’ decisions seems still missing: consumers are likely to wonder why there is no maximum level for ethyl carbamate, besides its potential carcinogenicity.

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Two big caveats remain on the table: firstly, does this information really get to the consumers? Who of the roughly 400 million EU citizens actually know EFSA?

Secondly, will they trust this information? EFSA faced critics on independence of its scientists. So, while the report is nicely done and the intentions are good, is EFSA putting the cart before the horse? Should they not focus more on gaining trust first?  “Chemicals in food 2015” can be one contribution to build trust, but need also to become a reference document for stakeholders in food risk communication.