The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently published a scientific report titled, “Horizon Scanning Exercise on Preparedness for Future Risk Assessment Requirements and Possible Challenges in Regulatory Science.” The report aims to analyze EFSA’s preparedness requirements for future risk assessments, as well as address challenges in regulatory science and the communication of such science. The report focuses on six thematic areas:
- Animal welfare and safety of the food chain
- Exposure science in risk assessment
- Nutrition and healthy diets from sustainable food systems
- Safety assessment of innovative products
- Sustainable food systems and food safety
- Evidence-based risk communication in the EU food safety system.
The report delivers an overview of emerging and upcoming scientific developments in these six thematic areas, in addition to identifying areas for collaboration between scientific actors and other stakeholders to cooperate in future work.
The report exercised horizon-scanning to perform its analysis, which it defines as the systematic examination of the food landscape’s potential future by considering the driving forces at play. Driving forces include relevant scientific and technological developments, socioeconomic developments, political and legislative developments, and ecological developments. The horizon-scanning exercise considers what trends can be reasonably predicted and what uncertainties exist regarding the driving forces. Researchers utilized workshops, activity mapping, and surveys to conduct the horizon-scanning exercise.
Thematic Area 1: Animal Welfare and Safety of the Food Chain
Thematic area 1 concerns animal welfare and the safety of the food chain. A notable topic mentioned in this area is the need to establish acceptable, reduced levels of antimicrobial use without compromising animal health and welfare. Food safety challenges identified in this area include balancing the benefits of animal welfare with food safety, as well as the effects of disease outbreaks on the transport of live animals.
Thematic Area 2: Exposure Science in Risk Assessment
Thematic area 2 involves aggregating scientific assessments of human exposure to chemicals, in light of a regulatory push at the EU level for aggregated assessments. A potential point of division identified in this area is the difficulty of reconciling a variety of datasets and data interpretations from different risk assessment bodies. EFSA also recognizes challenges that may arise with aggregating exposure assessments, such as the increased likelihood of missing data when a greater number of exposure routes are assessed.
Thematic Area 3: Nutrition and Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems
The third thematic area discusses nutrition and healthy diets from sustainable food systems, and the possible impacts on human health and food safety as Europe prioritizes the sustainability of its food system. The report reflects on the possibility of unprecedented food safety issues arising because of the introduction of new contaminants and allergens from sustainable food products. EFSA recognizes that there is a lack of methods and data to properly monitor and conduct research on such contaminants, as well as non-intentionally added or unknown substances.
Thematic Area 4: Safety Assessment of Innovative Products
Safety assessments of innovative products is broached in thematic area four. Innovative products refer to novel, and often sustainable, food and feed products such as protein derived from algae and insects, as well as cell-cultured meats. Technologies used to develop innovative products, such as new genomic techniques and synthetic biology approaches, are also discussed in this section. The report addresses that the development of many new and complex foods results in the need for systematic screening of possible hazards, including new biological and chemical contaminants, additives, and matrices.
Thematic Area 5: Sustainable Food Systems and Food Safety
Thematic area 5 again considers sustainable food systems, but with an emphasis on food safety rather than nutrition and healthy diets, as was discussed in thematic area 3. Notable food safety hazards that could arise with the development of sustainable food systems include the introduction of infectious agents and toxic chemicals to the food supply by organic fertilizers; exposure to contaminants and pathogens from urban farming; the risk of spoilage and new foodborne hazards caused by novel preservation, packaging, and sanitization methods; and the development of a sustainability-based food labeling system that could lead to increased food fraud.
Thematic Area 6: Evidence-Based Risk Communication in the EU Food Safety System
The sixth and final thematic area concerns evidence-based risk communication in the EU food safety system. This section explores the development and implementation of an integrated risk communication framework, the identification of research needs, potential differences between various target audiences and risk communication contexts, and appropriately crafting messaging for consumers. Challenges identified in thematic area 6 include institutional capacity, public trust in institutions, rapid changes in digital environments, differences between audiences’ communication needs, and the constant change in consumer priorities and attitudes.
The report concludes that, while there is much relevant research being done by individual groups across the six thematic areas, the connection of this research to EFSA’s work needs to be enhanced. EFSA states that the horizon scan allows for the agency to design actionable roadmaps based on recommended actions from the report, and that strengthening the cooperation between EFSA and stakeholders could help limit the number of scientific “blind spots” in areas where data is lacking. The report asserts that the impact of new and evolving foods, technologies, and priorities is not yet fully understood, and in order for regulatory science to advance, policy-makers must work toward identifying solutions.