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
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?
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