Identification of Emerging Food Risks in EU

United Kingdom

The European Food Safety Authority (“EFSA”) has reviewed how it determines the identification of emerging risks and what those risks are. The EFSA’s report of this review can be accessed here.

The risks identified as key emerging concerns include:

  • aflatoxins in cereal crops due to climate change;
  • data on energy drinks focused on young populations;
  • new analytical technologies and consumer exposure to multiple chemical residues; and
  • fluctuation in trade prices and food prices that may result in negative consequences such as compromising safety and quality, adulteration, instability in the food chain and adoption of less healthy diets.

This process is anticipated to result in a final evaluation and report from the Emerging Risks (“EMRISK”) unit and Scientific Committee Working Group (“SC WG”), identifying the emerging risks and making recommendations for possible actions.

This is a useful ‘snapshot’ of the emerging risks identified by the EFSA that may similarly be considered by industry, both from the point of view of risk reduction and in informing EFSA’s position.

After evaluating more than 2200 issues, mainly from the rapid alert system for food and feed (“RASFF”) and scientific literature, the main specific evolving risks identified are outlined below:

1. A study on the emergence of aflatoxins in cereal crops in the EU due to climate change

This referenced the findings of a separate EFSA report on the modelling, predicting and mapping of the emergence of aflatoxins in cereals in the EU due to climate change (which can be accessed here).

The predictions confirmed that maize is the cereal crop of concern and that both human and animal populations could be exposed to a high aflatoxin risk, at least in some EU regions, with scenarios of climate change of +2°C to +5°C. Wheat presents a negligible aflatoxin risk and rice no risk at all. The EFSA’s suggestion is to gather data to understand the impact of the application of good agricultural practices in the field and good post-harvest management practices to control and prevent potential aflatoxin risks.

The threshold level of toxicological concern was reviewed separately and is accessible here.

2. An EU-wide survey to gather consumption data on energy drinks focused on young populations

The EMRISK unit is now coordinating an EU-wide survey to collect data on the consumption of energy drinks and some active ingredients contained in certain energy drinks in specific consumer groups. The survey includes children (aged 3 to 10 years), adolescents (11 to 17 years), and adults (18-65 years), addresses specific habits (e.g. adolescents and adults practicing intense physical exercise, and co-consumption of energy drinks and alcoholic beverages) and patterns of consumption (acute and chronic) of energy drinks in EU Member States.

The project is conducted in strategic consultation with relevant stakeholders, such as EU and national health institutes and organisations knowledgeable in data collection related to the human consumption of energy drinks, and industry organisations. Once the results have been assessed, a recommendation will be made on the need or otherwise for risk assessment in this particular area.

3. New analytical technologies

‘Ome’ and ‘omics’ are suffixes that are derived from ‘genome’. ‘Omics’ technologies have been identified as a driver with potential implications for food and feed safety risk assessment. Omics technologies are firmly established as research tools and are gaining credibility also in risk assessment. Compared with traditional methods, omics appear to combine the benefits of relative simplicity and sensitivity with speed of generating information, potentially also reducing the need for animal testing.

At an international level, risk assessment bodies (including US-EPA, WHO and OECD) are currently starting to consider the integration of omics in their risk assessment frameworks mainly in the field of mechanistic toxicology. As a consequence, the EFSA has initiated a project aimed at critically reviewing the state of the art of omics technologies applied to food and feed safety in order to understand possible future implications for risk assessment in the areas under EFSA’s remit.

‘Synthetic biology’ has been identified as an emerging technology and a driver of change that may impact on the food chain in future. However, as food/feed applications are still some way off, it was recommended that it is too early to carry out a risk assessment but that developments in this area should be monitored.

4. Human health risks from exposure to multiple chemical residues

Whilst biological issues have given rise to a number of safety issues recently (e.g. outbreak of E. coli O104 in Germany and France in 2011), the EFSA is particularly focused on exposure to chemical residues.

Human health risks from exposure to multiple chemical residues (e.g. chemical mixtures) have been identified as an area that needs further development and harmonisation within EFSA. In particular, chemical mixtures related to metabolic interaction and synergistic effects for human risk assessment have been prioritised for follow-up action.

5. Sourcing - Trade routes, volume and prices

Trade pathways of food and feed commodities, plants and live animals are changing over time. Consideration of these pathways may be useful in the anticipation of the introduction of hazards (e.g. plant or animal diseases) and the estimation of exposure to hazards linked to certain importation profiles. However there are limitations in the data due to the quality of sources used.

Price changes (i.e. increase, decrease or fluctuation over time) were suggested as a driving factor that may influence food consumption and subsequently the intake of both nutrients and contaminants. They may have negative consequences in terms of food safety. In particular, they may lead to the compromise of safety and quality, adulteration, instability in the food chain and adoption of less healthy diets. However, the collation of data in this area is complex.

Two reports on the fluctuations in trade volumes and food prices as drivers of emerging risks have been commissioned.