Public Release: 

Risk and food are on the same plate: World food safety experts offer new methods to assess risk

Michigan State University

SEATTLE - New methods are in the pipeline to improve the safety of the world's food supply, and the need is imminent, said the director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University.

Ewen C.D. Todd is organizing the symposium "Food Safety and Risk Assessment: New Approaches to Microbiological Problems" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting today in Seattle. Todd emphasizes that microbiological foodborne hazards, such as listeriosis, are cause for concern today, due to many changes:

  • The globalization and urbanization of developing countries, some without adequate infrastructure systems to handle food and water safety.
  • Growing number of countries reporting increased numbers of foodborne illness through better surveillance systems.
  • Problems with produce contamination, extending the outlook of food risk.
  • Concerns with bioterrorism and possible threats to food security.
  • New patterns of food production, distribution and consumption, including increased travel, eating away from home, and the higher demand for a wide variety of food (issues of trade).
  • Recent recalls and industry losses such as the Pilgrim's Pride Listeria outbreak of 2002 and mad cow disease affecting Canadian and U.S. beef supplies in 2003 and 2004.

    "Scientific risk-based policy is overtaking the cultural and political debate about food," said Todd, referring to the United States' recent single case of mad cow disease. "Countries are creating policies based on risk, not on culture. The current systems of testing and release of products have not proven very effective in reducing foodborne illness."

    Risk assessments are the gathering of quantitative data on the prevalence (whether it occurs) and concentration (how much is present) of foodborne illness for specific foods. Modules from farm to fork help create a mathematical picture about risk for contamination. The resulting models can predict the number of illnesses that can occur, and how managers can change parameters - and thus food safety strategies - to control the risk. The concept is relatively new for the food industry - so it's imperative that the global community understand the issue and methods, Todd said.

    Todd has gathered together world expert speakers on risk assessment of food to hash out approaches for countries as diverse as Malaysia and the United States - which, as with many countries, currently have different approaches to assess risk for foodborne illness. In addition to Todd, the speakers include:

  • Jorgen Schlundt of the World Health Organization: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, along with WHO, is in the process of drafting risk assessment strategies for 21 foods. Todd co-authored the FAO/WHO assessment on Listeria monocytogenes. (Biggest issues: What do countries do with these? How do they use the assessments?)
  • Karen Hulebak of the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Hulebak will represent the Codex Alimentarius Commission from the perspective of the Committee on Food Hygiene. (Biggest issue: How will the Codex standards affect trade?)
  • Karen Dodds of Health Canada: While Canada has a management system in place, factors such as bioterrorism and mad cow disease may impact food labeling and trade. Todd was the head of the Contaminated Foods Section of Health Canada for many years. (Biggest issue: How does Canada's management approach fit into the new standards?)
  • Isabel Walls of International Life Sciences Institute, Risk Science Institute: ILSI is drafting a final report that describes risk to different types of populations, including the sensitive immuno-compromised population. They might require messages to not eat certain foods based on risk assessment findings. Todd serves on the expert team to reduce listeriosis. (Biggest issue: Can you relax the zero tolerance policy for certain foods, and refocus resources on foods that cause illness?)
  • Leon Gorris of Unilever: Gorris will provide industry perspective on risk assessment, and how it can aid in product development and design. (Biggest issue: What is the cost to industry, and thus to consumers to control risk?)


    Todd is a member of MSU's Environmental Science and Policy Program, a groundbreaking new effort that gathers the university's vast, multidisciplinary resources to best position students, scientists and society for a future filled with change and a need for balance.

    For information on the program, access the Web site at

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness per year. This is the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. citizens acquiring a foodborne illness each year. The National Food Safety & Toxicology Center at Michigan State University, celebrating its fifth year of operation, is committed to reducing food-related disease on a global level through research, education and outreach.

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