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Chemicals in food - managing the risks: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help


Managing The Risks

In this country we are lucky that the main risk to us from food is through eating too much of it. We deal with this every day when we choose what to eat. Does the pleasure of a large piece of chocolate cake outweigh the chance of increasing our weight and risk of illness?

But there are other possible risks in food that we can't control ourselves. All food is a mixture of chemicals, and some of these can be harmful. By the time we eat it, most food has collected very small amounts of extra chemicals, from farming, processing or even cooking, in addition to those that are present naturally. It is the Government's duty to assess the possible harm from each of these chemicals, taking into account the amounts we are likely to eat. A large sum of public money is spent on research and on controlling these hazards.

We all want to have enough food at a reasonable price all year round. To achieve this, some chemicals have to be used: risks and benefits have to be balanced. Some people distrust this process, fearing that their safety is considered less important than commercial interests. This section describes how the Government tries to reach common sense decisions about chemicals in food.

A Calculated Risk

The independent doctors and scientists who advise the Department of Health and the Food Safety and Environment Group of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF for short) believe that the chemicals now in our food have been controlled so that risks to health are very small. But they are the first to agree that it is impossible to be certain that every risk has been spotted, or perfectly controlled. The only way to have zero risk from food would be not to eat.

These advisers use three steps to assess whether the level of a chemical in our food is reasonably safe:

· How harmful is the chemical?

· How much of it is in our food and in which foods?

· How much of those foods are we likely to eat?

How Harmful?

Independent doctors and scientists consider all the available scientific information on a food chemical. They aim to work out the highest quantity various animals can eat without showing ill-effects. This level is called the NOAEL, No -Observed - Adverse - Effect - Level. A large safety margin is applied to the NOAEL to arrive at a much lower human ADI, or Acceptable Daily Intake (for chemicals added deliberately), or TDI or Tolerable Daily Intake (for chemicals present accidentally). Records of reactions by humans in the past or in other countries are also taken into account.

Many people dislike tests on animals, and point out that humans may react differently. But tests on humans are neither ethical nor practical: we live too long. You can't wait 20 years to see the possible long-term effects which low intakes of some chemicals might cause. These effects, as well as short-term problems, usually occur much more quickly in test animals. MAFF's Food Safety Directorate is funding some new developments in testing which avoid the use of animals.

New chemicals to be added to food are only considered if the manufacturer can show that they offer a real benefit. People don't always agree on what is a benefit: do we really need colourings in food, for instance? The Government has to allow for different points of view. However, the advisers believe that the pleasures of colourful food outweigh the tiny risks. It seems unreasonable to restrict shoppers' freedom to choose so long as labelling of additives gives them that choice. For harmful chemicals naturally present in food, this balance is not so easy to achieve: they cannot be easily removed. The balance of risk and benefit of any chemical is