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Food Quality and Safety in Europe



Understanding the health risk of chemical pollutants in food is a complex multidisciplinary task. There are many aspects, such as how much contamination is taken up by the body and whether effects are different for different people. The chemicals could interact with one another in the diet. European research on this health risk is currently fragmented and disorganised, resulting in poor information for consumers and policy-makers alike. A Network of Excellence, known as CASCADE, is bringing scientists together to address gaps in the knowledge, train young researchers, and communicate useful evidence and information to those who need to know.


The CASCADE network of 16 academic institutes and two small companies is a five-year project. It will focus on chemicals known as 'endocrine disruptors' which affect hormone receptors in the cell nucleus. Such chemicals, which include dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), accumulate in both the environment and in the body. They can influence gene expression and have potentially serious effects on development and health. The risks from these contaminants are poorly understood, and in some countries such chemicals continue to be manufactured and used.

The network will carry out a joint programme of research, uniting scientists from different disciplines, including physiology, chemistry and toxicology. They will review global knowledge in the field, and make an inventory of active research in partner organisations. Resources, such as antibodies and relevant genes, will be collected and stored in a central library, and researcher exchange will be encouraged and financed.


The project has identified areas where lack of knowledge prevents accurate risk assessment. For example, it is difficult to measure people's exposure to many contaminants because the toxins are altered in the body. Exposure to, rather than quantity in food, is the crucial statistic when it comes to health risk, and it depends on your sex, age and diet. Chemicals produced by the body in response to the toxins, known as biological markers, must be identified to indicate how much contaminant is active in a person. Scientists have yet to understand how the chemicals cause conditions such as cancer or infertility, and there is little knowledge concerning long-term low dose effects.

The network aims to allocate 15% of its budget to small and medium-sized companies for contract research. There are opportunities for the commercial exploitation of results, because cheap testing methods are needed for endocrine disrupting chemicals, in anticipation of future EU legislation. CASCADE has staffed a 'sciencesociety' office at the Karolinska Institute, who will communicate the research on endocrine disruptors to European food safety agencies and consumer organisations, distributing brochures and a quarterly newsletter.


An ambitious training programme for young researchers aims to broaden the perspective of the next generation of scientists studying contaminants in the food chain. Ten Ph.D. students will be funded to carry out collaborative projects within the network, and a course on Environmental Health Risk Assessment, and a series of summer schools will be organised.

At present, there is a perception that research institutes leading this field operate independently, neither sharing results nor collaborating. CASCADE should reverse this approach to the benefit of all European consumers.

List of Partners

  • Karolinska Institutet (Sweden)
  • Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche "Mario Negri" (Italy)
  • University of Milan (Italy)
  • Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (Germany)
  • Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (France)
  • University of Granada (Spain)
  • Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (France)
  • University of Turku (Finland)
  • Georg August University, Göttingen (Germany)
  • University of Pecs (Hungary)
  • Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (France)
  • University of Tübingen (Germany)
  • KaroBio (Sweden)
  • Puleva Biotech (Spain)
  • National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (The Netherlands)
  • University of Helsinki (Finland)
  • Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca per gli Alimenti e la Nutrizione (Italy)
  • GSF-National Research Centre for Environment and Health (Germany)
Full title:
Chemicals as contaminants in the food chain: an NoE for research, risk assessment and education
Contract n°:
Project co-ordinator:
Jan-Ake Gustafsson, Karolinska Institutet,
EC Scientific Officer:
Maria Spulber,
EU contribution:
€ 14.4M
Network of Excellence

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top