Modern science has provided detailed information into the mechanisms of life itself, and modern chemistry has allowed the identification and quantification of chemicals, even down to a few molecules. Yet knowledge of facts does not automatically give insight, nor does it provide direction as to what to do with that knowledge. The capability of modern science to detect an increasingly smaller number of molecules, for example, does not itself provide any better understanding of the biological meaning of those small numbers of molecules or in turn their significance to human health. This lack of insight in turn often leads to confused or inappropriate public policy. Increasingly, policy makers have come to realize that the only rational future for the development of public policy concerned with the safety of the food supply must depend on sound adequate science and on the development of processes and procedures that utilize the available science in a rational way to arrive at public policy decisions.
From a historical point of view, the development of food safety evaluations has reached an important crossroads. For the first time, modern biology is being applied to the issues of food safety. Distinctions among chemistry, toxicology, nutrition and microbiology are being removed. Evaluation of food safety through this integrated mechanism will permit generic and, ultimately, predictive outcomes. To a significant extent, all of these processes have come to focus on this evaluative framework, namely risk assessment.
The importance of risk assessment lies not only in its ability to estimate human risk, but also in its use as a framework for organizing data as well as for allocating responsibility for analysis. Within common boundaries, it is important to understand that risk assessment is a process that can include a variety of models to reach conclusions. The concept of the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), for example, may be considered as a component of risk assessment, although a notionally zero risk, when combined with exposure assessments. Common structure permits a transparent and relatively uniform approach to the problem of providing useful information to risk managers. Moreover, for the evaluators, it provides a way to identify areas in which the available data are insufficient to reach reasonable decisions. The use of a common framework also facilitates harmonization of food safety evaluation processes among nations.
The convening of this Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on the Application of Risk Analysis to Food Standards Issues is a landmark in the development of international food safety evaluation. For the first time, an international trade agreement, the SPS Agreement, explicitly recognizes that for establishment of rational harmonized regulations and standards for food in international trade a rigorous scientific process is required. Consequently, for food, CAC is required to provide the scientific framework on which adherence to the SPS Agreement will be based. While Codex standards will technically remain voluntary until they are accepted or used by countries, the SPS Agreement provides a mechanism for the collective adoption of Codex standards, guidelines and recommendations by WTO Member countries. Countries maintaining national standards more stringent than those of Codex may be required to defend their standards before WTO panels.
The outcome of the Consultation's deliberations can form the basis for the full integration of risk assessment into Codex decision making. Equally important, the outcome can also be used by many countries to establish food safety standards for their internal use.