Assessing Hazards and Risks along the Food Chain

AGES is the leading organisation for the minimising of risks in the fields health, food safety and consumer protection. AGES experts use the principles of risk analysis in their work. The term risk analysis describes a process that combines the individual steps of risk assessment, risk management and risk communications.  It is one of AGES’ core tasks -- in particular, for the Division for Integrative Risk Assessment, Data and Statistics (DSR) -- to evaluate risks along the entire food chain, communicate them and provide recommendations for risk management.

Risk Assessment – Core Task of AGES

The aim of risk assessment is to recognise and quantify health hazards that could stem from foods as early as possible and evaluate the associated risks to humans, animals and plants. This minimises danger and any potential risks in line with preventative consumer protection measures.

We carry out risk assessments to answer the following questions:

  • What can happen (hazard)?
  • How can it occur (causes, trigger)?
  • How bad could it be (damage extent)?
  • How likely is it (probability)? 
  • What recommendations can be deduced from the risk assessment for risk management purposes?
  • What measures can be undertaken to ensure risk management? 
  • What effects will those risk management measures have?
  • Would gathering further data affect the decision made by risk managers? 
  • Would wrong assumptions change the decision by risk managers? If yes, can this be verified?
  • What will it cost if measures are carried out? What will it cost if no measures are taken? Who would have to bear the costs?

Definition Hazard – Risk

A hazard is a biological, chemical or physical agent in foods or feeds or a situation in which foods or feeds might cause adverse health effects.

A risk is a function of the probability of an adverse health effect and the gravity of this effect as a result of a hazard becoming real.
Unlike the qualitative term hazard, risk is a quantitative term describing the scale of a hazard. Risk-based considerations form the basis of all modern supervision activities.

Risk Assessment Steps

Risk assessments are carried out based on the latest scientific findings and must be transparent, objective and traceable. Risk evaluation and assessment is defined as a scientifically based process comprising four phases, in both Regulation EC178/2002 and the Austrian Health and Food Safety Act (GESG): hazard identification, hazard characterisation, exposure assessment and risk characterisation.

Step 1 Risk Assessment – Hazard Identification

The first step is hazard identification, which pinpoints the origin of the hazard – how it appears and how it gets into food. Hazards can be manifold. They are categorised as biological (microorganisms, such as salmonella and listeria), chemical (pesticides, veterinary drugs, heavy metals, etc.) or physical (foreign objects, e.g. stones and glass). These hazards can be introduced into or created in foods thanks to agricultural production, pollution, food processing and even food preparation at home. In addition, natural food substances and additives have the potential to cause undesired health effects.

Step 2 of Risk Assessment – Hazard Characterisation

During the hazard characterisation stage, the hazard is described in more detail and evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively. Data from scientific research, toxicological studies, epidemiological studies and statistics are used for this purpose. In addition, national and international risk characterisations are used, as long as they have been conducted transparently and are traceable in terms their scientific basis, in line with the requirements specified. This can produce toxicological indicators, such as ADI (acceptable daily intake) or TDI (tolerable daily intake). These indicators specify the amount of a substance that can be ingested on a daily basis during the lifespan of an individual without causing adverse health effects.

Step 3 of Risk Assessment – Exposure Assessment

The entire, current exposure of the population is examined in exposure assessment. It is often necessary to look at the exposure of certain population groups, such as children, separately, as they are a particularly sensitive group and might face greater exposure to certain substances than adults (e.g. patulin in apple juice). Exposure assessment is based on linking consumption data of specific foods with the presence of the substance in the foods affected. All relevant components must be taken into account: incidence and concentration in various foods and feeds, possible transfer effects on animal-based foods, influencing factors during storage, processing or preparation. In addition, it is necessary to take into account all sources of exposure. Humans ingest polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons not only via foods, but also via the atmosphere and tobacco and cigarette smoke, for example.

Step 4 of Risk Assessment – Risk Characterisation

All data and information from the first three stages are used for risk characterisation to quantify the health risk to humans. Predictions on the probability, frequency and severity of known or potentially negative health effects on humans are made taking by considering all the uncertainties that occurred as part of the risk assessment process, as far as the level of knowledge and data available allows.

Recommendations for Risk Management

The findings made in risk assessment result in recommendations for risk management, such as in maximum level recommendations for specific foods. These recommendations are used by  risk managers as a basis for regulatory measures. Thus, social, commercial, ecological and ethical perspectives are also taken into consideration. Risk management is situated at the regulatory level, such as that of Federal Ministries and Provincial Governments.

Measures (regulations, application limitations, application bans, and recommendations) to minimise the exposure of the population to undesired substances and ensure maximum food safety are introduced, by evaluating all the information available.

Risk Communications

All individuals involved in this process should communicate intensively during each step of the risk assessment process. Effective risk management requires permanent dialogue and information exchange between risk assessors and decision makers, including other scientific committees, the industries affected, interest groups and consumers. Risk communications with consumers must be paid special attention and should be open, transparent and easy to understand.

Image 2: AGES risk assessment cycle depicting the food chain in the outer circle and key tasks of risk analysis, such as risk assessment, risk management and risk communications, in the inner circle.