Sécurité sanitaire et qualité des aliments

The rationale behind ranking food safety risks


In October 2020, FAO released a guidance document to help decision-makers rank the public health risks posed by foodborne hazards and/or foods in their countries. The focus was on microbial and chemical hazards in foods but the approach explained in the guide could be used for any hazard. The guidance document walks readers through three iterative steps (defining the scope, developing the approach and conducting the risk ranking analysis and reporting results) to calculate the likelihood and severity of the adverse impact that foodborne hazards could have on the health of a target population.

We spoke with Dr Barbara Kowalcyk, Director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention at The Ohio State University, who co-authored the report with Dr Juliana Ruzante, to understand what was behind promoting a systemic approach to ranking food safety risks.

  • First, can you tell us why national governments are interested in food safety?

Foodborne disease is a significant global health issue that sickens 600 million people each year, resulting in 420 000 deaths and the loss of 33 million healthy life years. This – combined with concerns about how to feed our growing population – is driving interest and investments in improving food safety, particularly in low- and middle-income countries which are disproportionally impacted by foodborne diseases.

  • Why is a systematic approach to ranking food safety risks needed?

The complexity of the food system makes tackling food safety a challenge – no country has enough resources to address ALL the food safety challenges they face. While all foodborne diseases need attention, the reality is that countries will have to make decisions on where to focus their attention and resources to maximize public health benefits – in other words, they need to set priorities. These decisions are not easy and, unfortunately, are often made in an ad hoc and subjective manner. A systematic approach will make the decision-making process more objective and transparent, which will help policy-makers justify and communicate their decisions.

  • Let’s talk about risk. What does risk ranking have to do with risk analysis?

Risk analysis is a science-based, systematic, and transparent approach that can be used to address food safety problems. Risk ranking is at the heart of this approach as it provides a means for systematically ordering food safety risks based on the likelihood and severity of adverse impacts on human health.

  • What challenges do countries face when it comes to ranking food safety risks?

Two challenges immediately come to mind – establishing the scope of the risk ranking and accessibility to the data needed to conduct the risk ranking. Many countries recognize the integral role that risk ranking plays in risk-based food safety systems but struggle with where to start given the multitude of hazards and foods to be considered, the complexity of risk ranking methods, and the data and resources needed to implement such approaches. There is a tendency to try to rank all foods and hazards using quantitative approaches but this can take a considerable amount of data, time and human resources. So, while quantitative risk ranking approaches are recognized as gold standards, the scope and approach need to align with the needs of the country and the available resources. Data are critical to risk ranking but are often unavailable or inaccessible. Ultimately, the availability of data may drive the risk ranking approach.

  • What was it like for you to work with FAO to develop a guidance document on ranking food safety risks at the national level and what will the publication help achieve?

Dr Ruzante and I were really honoured to have worked with an amazing group of people to develop the document – it will to provide direction to national food safety authorities on how to start ranking the public health risk posed by foodborne hazards and/or foods in their countries. In particular, the guidance focuses on ranking of microbial and chemical hazards based on their public health impacts and represents the first step toward a systematic and evidence-based approach to identifying the most significant food safety risks.

  • Is the risk-ranking method described in the publication all that countries need to manage food safety risks?

It is important to keep in mind that risk ranking is a complex, iterative, and data-driven process that must evolve as new data and information become available so the approach we have proposed should be considered as a starting point – and followed up with appropriate risk management strategies as well as effective risk communications. Over time, the risks will change as mitigation strategies reduce some risks and changing practices – as well as emerging zoonotic diseases – cause new ones to emerge. Risk ranking should not be viewed as a one-time activity.

Download the publication here

Photo above, courtesy of Barbara Kowalcyk, shows a group of policy-makers at a workshop in Ethiopia about applying the risk-ranking approach

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