European food consumers in safe hands

October 17, 2006

Brussels, 16 October 2006

Recent news of banned genetically-modified products entering Europe, of the presence in food of the carcinogenic compound acrylamide and other harmful substances, have left some European consumers standing dazed and confused in supermarket aisles, wondering what, if anything, is safe to eat anymore. When scares like these arise, often it is the authorities and scientists who are first to come under fire, criticised for being ineffective and placing consumers at an unnecessary risk.

But according to Elke Anklam, Director of the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC), European consumers should rest easy and have more faith in Member States and the EU, which together, she says, have put in place a scientific safety and quality assessment mechanism that is proving to be effective in tackling and avoiding potential risks to food safety and quality. In an interview with CORDIS News, she highlights the role of the European Commission including the JRC and other EU agencies in this process and discusses some of the 'hot' food safety and quality topics of the moment.

The JRC provides scientific and technical support for the conception, development, implementation and monitoring of EU policies. It comprises seven institutes which carry out extensive research of direct concern to European citizens and industry. Two institutes deal mainly directly with food safety and quality: the Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM) in Geel, Belgium, which produces certified reference quality assurance tools on food and feed additives; and the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) in Ispra, Italy, which, among other things, deals with the technical issues related to the sampling, detection, and identification of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Rather than conducting quality control on food themselves, the two institutes work together to ensure that the same reference materials and quality assessment methodologies are being used across Europe. 'We are not doing work which is routine official food quality control - this is done in the Member States - this has to be made clear,' says Dr Anklam. 'We help by harmonising the control methods and tools used to ensure a good analytical strategy.'

The two institutes work very closely with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which provides risk assessments on all matters linked to food and feed safety. 'We are complimentary to EFSA - it looks into toxicity issues and safety, particularly in cases of authorisation, while we focus on detection methodologies,' says Dr Anklam.

For example, when industry produces a new feed additive, it must ask permission to market it in Europe. A dossier is created and sent via the Commission to EFSA, which looks into the toxicity of the additive and determines whether a certain level in concentration would be safe for consumption. 'The part of the work undertaken by the JRC here is to look into the analytical methodology and ask: 'can we detect the additive at the levels which have been authorised in the feed?',' explains Dr Anklam. If either the EFSA or JRC encounters problems in their respective areas of expertise, the authorisation of the feed additive does not go ahead.

However, making sure that a methodology is capable of detecting the presence of these substances is no easy job. This is especially true of GM food products, which must have a GM label if more than 0.9% of the ingredients used in its production contain GMOs. The process of detecting the presence of GMOs, given the low threshold permitted, is akin to looking for a needle in the haystack, and in the case of non-authorised GMOs, an invisible needle, since the contamination may be as low as 0.01%. The sampling methodology must therefore be sensitive enough to measure the level of GMOs present so that it can be used for control purposes across Member States.

For some time now, the JRC has been active in the validation of analytical methods for the detection and quantification of GMOs in raw materials and processed food, and has been asked by Member States to coordinate a network of national enforcement laboratories on GMO detection. The JRC has also developed and produced GMO-based certified reference materials, which are essential for the establishment of appropriate protocols for GMO detection. 'We act as the Community's reference laboratory on GMOs and work closely with a large network of GMO labs,' says Dr Anklam.

The Centre's GMO detection and referencing methodologies were recently put to the test when rice cargo from the US was held in Rotterdam, where officials detected the presence of LL Rice 601, a strain of unauthorised GMO rice. 'When we were informed about the rice, we took steps to see whether the testing method [used by the Dutch officials] was right because our [EU] results turned out to be positive while they were tested negative in the US,' explains Dr Anklam. This threw light on the need for further collaboration between the US and EU to bring in line the testing methodologies and sampling on GMOs.

The JRC is also looking into reports by Greenpeace, who claim to have found samples of the illegal GMO rice being sold in Chinese supermarkets and restaurants in Germany. Further efforts are required to ensure the harmonisation of the EU's measurement methodologies so that such products do not find their way onto supermarket shelves.

'Whether this [rice] poses a danger for EU consumers or not, the issue is that when it comes to the EU market, it is under EU law and of course this is illegal,' says Dr Anklam. However, she thinks consumers should not be too concerned by the presence of GM products. 'I am fully trusting of EFSA and the experts which provide an opinion to authorise and ban certain GM products. I would therefore eat authorised GM products. They are safe. I am not afraid myself of the other [unauthorised].We have lots of other food safety problems that we don't talk about such as food microbiology as one example. A lot of people can die from eating potentially microbial contaminated non-pasteurised cheeses.'

In addition to working on detection methodologies for GMOs, the JRC is also ensuring that effective testing is in place for the ever-growing array of food-related allergies. 'We are checking the tests used to detect ingredients which may be a threat to the consumer,' says Dr Anklam. 'For example, we have very severe cases for allergies, particularly in the case of nuts where tiny amounts of peanuts in chocolate or cookies could lead to the death of someone who is allergic to them.

'It's important that our methodologies of testing these tests take into account the presence of the ingredient in any processed food. Again here, we produce reference material and quality assurance methodologies or a testing method if none exists,' she says.

Another area which is high on the JRC's agenda is acrylamide, a compound believed to be carcinogenic that is produced when food is cooked at very high temperatures. 'We are responsible for running the European monitoring database which contains data on the presence of this compound in food,' says Dr Anklam. 'It is important to make exposure assessments to estimate the average daily intake by a consumer of the compound. This assessment will allow experts to then determine what the safest level of acrylamide would be in any given food product on the market or by cooking at home.'

The work of the JRC in the field of food quality does not end there. The Centre is producing community reference tools on micotoxins, natural substances produced by moulds, and on contaminants released from food packaging. It is also running a databank on authentic European wines to ensure that when we buy a bottle of Burgundy wine, we are not drinking wine produced elsewhere; and has started looking at the presence of nanoparticles in food additives.

Asked whether she had a message for European consumers, Dr Anklam underlined the importance of enjoying food and trusting the authorities across the EU who are ensuring high levels of food safety and quality. She also pointed to the need for consumers to be more responsible in the way they treat food, opting for a healthy diet and storing food in the right conditions.

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