Chemical Risks in Foods: An Editorial Viewpoint

May 1, 1997

First published in Food Technology Magazine, May 1997. (Download PDF version)

The safety of our food has been a source of public and scientific interest and debate for decades. The debate has intensified as the science of toxicology has matured and the public has grown increasingly concerned over the relationship between environmental exposure to chemicals and the incidence of chronic disease. How society should regulate the use of pesticides in agriculture has been the most visible controversy but the fundamental issues go well beyond a single category of risk. Cancer has been the center of focus, perhaps at the expense of other hazards such as neurotoxicity, allergies, and endocrine toxicity. The debate has been extended from synthetic chemicals to naturally occurring toxicants as detailed in the recent National Research Council (NRC) report titled “Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet.” The controversy has resulted in scientific insights and landmark legislation. It has also produced a large body of political, economic, social, scientific, and lay literature ranging from the insightful to the ridiculous. The issues change (remember Alar?) but the nature of the debate does not. How do we ensure our and the environment’s safety yet avail ourselves of the bounty of modern agriculture?

Because of, or perhaps in spite of, the intensity of the debate, there has been considerable advancement in our understanding of the risks associated with foods and more importantly, how to measure, manage, and communicate these risks. Authors Carl Winter and Jack Francis have been at the center of this debate and in the Scientific Status Summary, “Assessing, Managing, and Communicating Chemical Food Risks” (see p. 85), that they prepared for IFT’s Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition, they succinctly present the state-of-the-art. They point out that this is not just a scientific issue but also a political and social one.

Perhaps the most important message in the Scientific Status Summary is that our understanding of risks associated with foods has evolved into a definable and logical process made up of what they term a “trinity” of issues. Science, politics, and social communication interact in this trinity. It is the role of science to conduct experiments that give insight into the nature and size of risk in a process called “risk assessment.” Hazard identification, development of the doseresponse relationship, and exposure assessment are each required to understand a given risk. The inherent weaknesses and limitations of epidemiology require us to use laboratory experiments to predict the potential human experience.

It is important to understand that this, like all science, is a constantly changing process containing some degree of uncertainty. We must learn to be comfortable with the natural uncertainty in the scientific process. How to improve the process of risk assessment is the source of genuine and earnest scientific debate. The recent NRC report, “Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children,” is an example of how risk assessment evolves and improves.

As Winter and Francis make clear, without the accompanying political and social processes, risk assessment becomes a scientific exercise lacking public support or advantage. Risk assessment must be followed by social management. It is the responsibility of the regulatory community (e.g., FDA, EPA, and state agencies) to find ways to manage complicated risks, often without the benefit of definitive data or predictable consequences. Much of the current political debate centers on how much or how little latitude to give the political system to manage food-chemical risks.

Communication must be the third leg of the “trinity.” If meaningful and rational decisions are to be made and effective public policy formed, a public understanding of both the assessment process and the management of risks is required. How most effectively to communicate these complicated and highly technical issues has become the focus of considerable research and a large body of literature.

It might appear that advances in risk assessment, management, and communication have reduced the likelihood that past upheavals will occur. Episodes which foster public distrust rather than understanding are disruptive and counter productive. Our best hope to replace social, economic and political disarray with rational public response and appropriate policy may be to refocus the debate away from individual cases (carcinogen de jour) and towards improving the overall process. Scientists, regulators, and communicators must improve the public’s understanding of food-related risks. In this way we may be able to engender a public trust in the “trinity” of risk rather than the current distrust of technology.

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