Positive stocktaking after three years' work on behalf of consumer health protection
With the establishment of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in November 2002, the legislator marked the institutional separation of risk assessment from risk management and set the standard on the European level. The objective was to make risk assessment on a high scientific level transparent and, by extension, more comprehensible for the general public whilst keeping it free from economic, social and political interests. An ambitious aim and a major challenge for the fledgling Institute. After three years' work on behalf of consumer health protection, BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, gave a first, positive review at the Federal Press Office (BPA) today, "We have successfully responded to the challenge. This is confirmed by our Annual Report and is reaffirmed by the Scientific Council in its Expert Report". In brief, the report states that the Institute’s work is characterised by good to very good quality research, science-based services and a clear scientific orientation in the assessment of risks to consumers.
BfR is responsible for identifying and assessing potential risks to consumers from foods, feedstuffs, chemicals and consumer products. Furthermore, it is responsible for proposing risk reduction measures to political circles and informing the general public about them. BfR is engaged in active research; it elaborates, evaluates and standardises detection methods for official control. It advocates replacing or supplementing as many as possible of the animal experiments still prescribed today with methods involving no experimental animals. One topical example is the mouse bioassay prescribed in the European Union for the detection of algal toxins which may accumulate in mussels and other shellfish. Their consumption can cause diarrhoea and paralysis in human beings and, in severe cases, may even prove fatal. In order to detect the algal toxins, an extract of the mussel tissue is injected into the abdominal cavity of the mice. The death of the mice is seen as confirmation of the presence of the toxin. BfR criticises the fact that the method is unreliable and not sensitive. “Reliable protection for consumers”, comments Andreas Hensel, “can be ensured more effectively without animal experiments and innumerable mice are spared from unnecessary suffering”. The Institute is actively working on alternative chemical-analytical methods and is seeking their statutory recognition by the European Commission so that they can be used routinely by official food control agencies across Europe. The Commission has responded and intends to update the relevant legislation.
When it comes to assessing so-called multiple residues, the emphasis is not on animal welfare but on consumer protection. Maximum residue levels are set within the framework of pesticide approval for individual substances in foods that do not then constitute a risk to consumers, and can be met through compliance with good agricultural practice. The situation may, however, differ in the case of the combined action of these individual substances. It is still not clear whether any and, if so, which health risks are linked to so-called multiple residues in foods. Suitable concepts must be developed in order to undertake a more comprehensive assessment of them. BfR is working on this with scientists and consumer protectionists from both inside and outside Germany.
With regard to the risks from pathogens, public attention focussed last year on bird flu. Concerns about the possible transmission of the animal epidemic to man prompted many questions about health and consumer protection. BfR is of the opinion that the possibility of contracting bird flu from food is unlikely. Nevertheless, it advises caution. Bird flu is an impressive example of interdisciplinary and international cooperation in the prevention and control of diseases which can spread from animals to man. They also include campylobacteriosis. For the first time more people contracted campylobacteriosis than salmonellosis infections in 2005. Almost half of them can be traced back to poultry meat. Since less than one-third of the chicken eaten in Germany is also produced here, steps to reduce the risk will only be successful if taken on the international level.
The safety of children’s toys, cosmetics or food packaging is one of the main areas of the Institute’s work which is of particular relevance to the public at large. Potential risks linked to consumer products have repeatedly led to headlines in the past. The most recent example concerns aerosol-based glass and ceramic sealing sprays which are advertised in the retail trade as nanotechnology products. In a very short period of time they triggered health disorders, in some cases severe lung damage, in more than 100 users. In future, the Institute intends to devote more time to risks of this kind and, with this in mind, has set up its own department for product safety.
“By means of our scientific autonomy, the quality of our work and the transparent nature of our assessments we actively contribute to making food, substances and products safer”, stated Andreas Hensel at the annual press conference. The Scientific Council has confirmed this direction in its Expert Report: the Institute’s concepts and projects were convincing and should be supported. BfR was well on the way to becoming the national institution that offers orientation knowledge in the field of health risk assessment from one source.
The Annual Report 2005 and the Expert Report of the Scientific Council can be accessed on the BfR website (www.bfr.bund.de).