The high-profile food crises that recently struck Europe, lead to an intensive discussion about the safety of our food supply. It also triggered the creation of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA will be responsible for the science-based assessment of risks, while decisions on management of risks are the preserve of the European Union regulators and policy makers. Risks are assessed and managed in a framework called Risk Analysis. This article explains what Risk Analysis is.
Are we clear what we mean with “risk”? One description is “the likelihood of an adverse event, hazard or harm occurring and the impact it will have when it occurs”. To assess risks and to decide on how best to manage them on the complex and large scale of the European Union is an enormous challenge. It is difficult to appreciate all aspects of a risk or to oversee all consequences of a management measure; there will be many gaps or uncertainties in the knowledge. Risk analysis is a systematic way to more fully assess risks, to get transparency into complexity and to address uncertainties or knowledge gaps. It facilitates making risk management decisions and communicating about risk. Risk Analysis is composed of three activities: risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.
In a food context, risks involve potential impacts on consumers. Possible hazards in foods are infectious micro-organisms, chemicals occurring as contaminants (e.g. cleaning compounds) or physical agents (e.g. glass). While all effort is made to minimise hazards occurring, food safety is not an absolute and hazards can occur. Risk assessment follows a structured approach to estimate the risk and to obtain insight in the factors that influence the risk in a positive or negative sense. A risk can be estimated in absolute terms (e.g. estimating the number of consumers getting ill per year from eating certain products) or in relative terms (e.g. comparing the safety of one product with that of another).
Risk managers drive the Risk Analysis. They decide whether a risk assessment is needed to solve the problem and support the risk assessors in their work. Once the risk assessment is complete, the risk managers use the outcome in deciding what to do about the risk. When the risk needs to be reduced, risk management will have to choose the best measure(s) to do this.
In Risk Analysis, different types of communication are important. Technical discussions occur between managers, assessors and stakeholders in the private sectors. When deciding on how best to manage a risk and when implementing decisions, communication between risk managers, the public and private sectors is very important. This discussion is far less technical and may include, for instance, economical, social and ethical values. In order to make a decision that is adequate for the purpose and acceptable for all stakeholders, risk management needs to assure good risk communication. Many people take the view that risk communication is nothing more than a PR type activity, but to be fair to the discipline it has evolved in its own right, primarily as a product of the risk perception school. Risk perception refers to a wide array of primarily psychological studies, begun some 50 years ago, examining why people perceive some risks differently than others. This research showed that people are more concerned about involuntary than voluntary risks and more about technological than natural hazards. Such findings greatly impacted on how risks are best communicated to the public. The original risk communication strategies worked top-down, for instance from a regulator to the public. More recently, a dialogue form of risk communication which encourages public and stakeholders to actively participate in the communication process, has become preferred.
EUFIC is closely following the risk analysis developments within the European food area. Of particular interest to our organisation is that of risk communication. We will be reporting back to you about this and other risk related activities over the months to come.
ILSI, Food Safety Management Tools, J.L.Jouve, M.F.Stringer and A.C. Baird Parker, April 1998