Building a surveillance system for food chemicals
Mounting consumer concerns about food safety in recent years have raised questions about what we eat and drink. European authorities have some basic tools for risk assessment and risk management of food chemicals, but data is patchy and limited. The European Union (EU)-funded project FACET helped design a software tool that provides consumers with the best possible scientific data about the food supply.
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The FACET software tool contains detailed information on the occurrence and levels of food additives and flavouring substances in different food groups, as well as extensive data on the substances used to make packaging materials. The project was coordinated by Professor Mike Gibney from University College Dublin who had previously led an FP5 Research Consortium on the development of validated models for probabilistic estimates to food chemical exposure The project team involved 20 partners from across Europe, stemming from academia, industry, research centres, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). A critically important SME was Crème Software based in Dublin who wrote all the highly complex software for all areas of the FACET project.
Although the four-year FACET project formally ended in September 2012, the tool continues to be regularly updated. “The FACET software tool allows more refined and therefore more accurate estimates of food exposure to chemicals that migrate from packaging, containers and other food contact materials,” says Laurence Castle, who led the FACET team’s research work. “FACET thus contributes to the improvement of exposure assessment by developing a new methodology for collecting data and integrating new parameters in the calculations,” he adds.
Castle, who is also a Principal Scientist at the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), in York, United Kingdom, believes the project helped shed more light on the materials and chemicals that are used in the food sector. ”FACET represents a perfect tool for post-market monitoring since it reflects the real exposure of a targeted population to a food chemical,” he says.
The project involved major data collection, categorisation and analysis in areas where no previous standards existed. For example, it provided detailed information for 41 flavouring substances chosen to represent the different typologies of flavours, and a further 32 different additives. The project team created a database of the chemicals likely to be contained in different packaging materials used across Europe. In addition, the team developed a mathematical modelling tool to estimate migration from packaging materials into food under real conditions of use.
The involvement of industry partners was crucial, with food, drink, flavouring and packaging associations committing important resources to the FACET project. Each industry sector found ways to collect, collate and submit data describing the European market.
The project’s overall impact is expected on different levels including consumer protection, innovation in the food chain, international food regulatory affairs, as well as a focused risk management approach.