Legislation on food standards and food safety must be backed up by sound science. In the European Union, the Joint Research Centre advises the European commission. Its experts were in London on Tuesday to tell a UK audience how they work. Chris Lyddon reports.

Professor Elke Anklam, head of the JRC’s food safety and quality unit, believes the right controls are in place. “We have a responsibility as consumers,” she told just-food. “It’s the balanced diet that’s important, not the tiny amount of dioxin there is in there.”

She is worried about people on low incomes. “If we tell them that they should have five a day we should make it possible,” she said. “Bread is cheaper, pasta is cheaper.”

The JRC’s mission is to provide scientific and technical support for the conception, development, implementation and monitoring of EU policy.

In food safety its activities include working on contaminants and residues like acrylamide, allergens and natural toxins. It looks at additives and ingredients, BSE and GMO testing, the migration of harmful substances into food from contact materials and functional and organic food. Its food sector roles are just part of a wide remit which includes looking at energy technologies, climate change, monitoring nuclear proliferation, monitoring agriculture from satellites, supporting the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and predicting natural disasters. It also looks at alternatives to animal testing for the cosmetics industry.

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Professor Anklam introduced her section of the JRC with a talk called: “Do you know what was in your breakfast today?”

“We are worried about the composition of our food,” she said. “We would really like to limit those substances that may have harmful effects on human health.” There was a long list of potentially harmful substances, including mycotoxins, pesticides, acrylamide, PCBs, dioxins, veterinary drugs, viruses, bacteria and heavy metals. But she pointed out that there were legal limits on harmful substances.

It was also important to limit fraud. “As long as we have traded food we have had fraud,” she said.

The problem with assessing risks in food was its great complexity, with a high number of compounds to be measured. “Food is a living substance,” she said. “We have a complex matrix to be measured. From one food we make a lot of products. Think how many things are made from a soybean.”

Like other representatives of the JRC, Professor Anklam stressed that it did not duplicate, or usurp, the role of the national authorities. “We very much work together with and support the national control laboratories,” she said. The work includes support for the Directorates General of the European Commission, as well as for the European Food Safety Authority as well as for the national control laboratories as they implement legislation. It also includes working pro- where legislation is expected, as well as supporting national control laboratories in the implementation of legislation.

One important role for the JRC was in making sure that analytical methods were standard across the EU. “For example, we are testing the BSE tests,” she said. “We examine the laboratories to make sure a laboratory in Greece is the same as a laboratory in England.”

“We are giving quality assurance tools to laboratories to make sure that they are confident in their measurements,” she said. The idea was that tests would be accepted everywhere.

Beneficial versus harmful effects of food

Professor Anklam used the example of acrylamide to show how the same process could have beneficial and harmful effects. “Whenever you cook, fry or bake your food you get the Maillard reaction,” she explained. The reaction, which was discovered in 1912, creates a lot of different tastes, but it also forms acrylamide. “All of us have acrylamide in our systems,” she said. As acrylamide is a carcinogen, ministries in some countries already gave advice on how to fry or bake food. “The message is the less brown, the better it is,” she said. “Maybe the cook gets all the exposure,” she said. “The acrylamide’s very volatile.”

But at the same time antioxidative compounds were formed. Brown cookies prepared by the JRC had shown that both acrylamide content and anti-oxidative effect rose with baking time. There was a need for more research into this area.

The professor also wanted to see more research done on allergens. Analysis methods had to be able to detect allergens at very low levels. She criticised ‘may contain’ labelling. “This is not appropriate for someone who is allergic,” she said. “Every bar of chocolate you see has the words may contain on it.” There was too little knowledge about thresholds for labelling, or about the sensitivity of people with allergens.

One concern with allergies was that the proteins which caused them could change in processing in such a way as to become undetectable. Professor Anklam demonstrated that with another graph of the effect on a cookie, this time with added peanut. As the baking time became longer the peanut became more difficult to detect. Yet a dot blotting test showed that the cookie could still create the peanut allergy.

As well as looking at the influence of processing, the JRC also assessed the suitability of analytical methods and provided test materials which were accepted worldwide.

Nutrition is important

Professor Anklam stressed it was more important to make sure you had the right diet than worry about impurities in food. “It’s the nutritional content of your food,” she said. “That’s what’s important. We have appropriate legislation in place.” Consumers did not need to know all about the chemical composition of their food. “We scientists take care about the control of the safety and quality of food,” she said.

Consumers did have a responsibility for how they handle, store and prepare food. “Enjoy a diverse diet,” she said. “Think more positively instead of worrying too much about its safety.”

Dr Roland Schenkel, acting director general of the JRC, described it as working in the European Commission like a ministry within a government. He described the Centre’s mission as “very focused,” on providing support to European policy makers.

Genetically Modified Organisms presented a good example of the need to achieve consensus “If we are going to label GMOs what would be a reasonable percentage?,” he wondered. “You have different figures from everyone.” It was necessary to look at the economic impact of each figure. “You cannot do that alone,” he said. “That’s an issue which would be of high economic importance to all member states.”

An example of how the Centre can help deal with emergencies was presented by the contamination of maize with the unauthorised Bt10 variety earlier this year. The European Commission obliged the plant breeder to provide it with the genetic code. “Within 48 hours our laboratories had validated a test for maize 10,” he said.