Food consumption and food safety

Our food and food safety are at the heart of Sciensano’s concerns.

Adopting good eating habits is essential to health. A healthy diet is a source of vitality and well-being and protects against a large number of diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity and certain forms of cancer. That is why, via its food consumption surveys, Sciensano investigates whether Belgian eating habits are in line with nutritional recommendations.

To ensure quality, food is subject to continuous monitoring. In Belgium, the FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment and the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC) ensure the safety of the food chain, and call on Sciensano’s expertise to perform this monitoring. We are the reference body for six major areas related to food chain safety:

  • microbiology
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
  • contaminants and residues in food
  • materials in contact with food
  • food additives
  • nanomaterials.

Our partners also rely on Sciensano’s expertise for the monitoring of animal health, an important link in the food chain. Indeed, animals can be carriers of microorganisms that can be transmitted to humans through food or through direct contact with the animal.
 

SOME EXAMPLES OF OUR ACTIONS

What do we eat?

There is a direct link between chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases and what we eat (excessive consumption of fats and sugars, for example). Our poor eating habits can also lead to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, as well as diseases such as osteoporosis, anaemia or fatigue.
In its Food Consumption Survey, Sciensano performs an in-depth exploration of the habits of people from all age groups: adults and the elderly, but also children and growing teenagers. We interview them about their dietary habits, nutrient intake, but also their level of physical activity and body measurements.

Based on the results of these surveys, we make recommendations that feed a nutrition policy: limit excessive salt consumption to fight against high blood pressure, advocate the use by bakers of iodised salt in bread to fight against iodine deficiency in the Belgian population, etc. The results of the Food Consumption Survey also make it possible to measure the risk of contaminants and additives in food, and thus contribute to reducing them.

Food microbiology: what’s hiding in our food?

Sciensano hosts all the national reference laboratories in the domain, which analyse food samples sent by the FASFC. The goal is to identify and quantify pathogens (bacteria, viruses, etc. which cause diseases) present in food. The results of our analyses are communicated to the FASFC.

We also provide support to the FASFC and the authorities during food-borne outbreaks, in which case our role is to identify the sources of contamination. When a foodborne illness strikes, it is our laboratory that receives the samples for analysis from the FASFC. Depending on the results delivered by Sciensano, the FASFC can then takes certain measures, such as withdrawal of a food item from the shelves.

Sciensano also monitors animal health as certain animal pathogens can pose a risk to citizens, via the food chain among others. Some bacteria can be transmitted from animals to humans and cause diseases even if they are harmless in the intestines of animals. We can be infected by these bacteria via direct contact with infected animals, their milk or undercooked contaminated meat, for example.

GM foods under control

Through its research, Sciensano develops advanced technologies to detect GMOs in food and feed. With these technologies, we help the FASFC to detect (and possibly quantify) GMOs in food. Our results are communicated to the FASFC, which checks the mandatory labelling for all products containing GMOs. This ensures the consumer’s freedom of choice.

Contaminants and residues in food: what risks for the consumer?

Contaminants from the environment such as heavy metals, dioxins or toxins, and food residues (substances that may come into contact with food following environmental contamination by pesticides, veterinary drugs, etc. ), are subject to European regulation. In Belgium, Sciensano is the reference laboratory for:

  • pesticides
  • environmental contaminants
  • heavy metals (lead, arsenic, etc.)
  • mycotoxins (natural substances that are produced by moulds and which can be highly toxic).

In this context, we assess the health risks related to the presence of toxic substances, residues and contaminants in food. We inform the authorities, which may decide to withdraw a product from the market.

Materials in contact with food: what are the actual risks?

The packaging of prepared products, the materials of kitchen utensils, dishes and cutlery are often composed of metals, alloys or plastics from which compounds can migrate into food and therefore represent a health hazard.

If an acidic ingredient such as lemon comes into contact with aluminium for example, small amounts of metal or alloy may dissolve and end up in the food. Although, most of the time, contamination is well below the threshold considered as “safe”, these materials are subject to regular monitoring by the FASFC, to whom we provide technical and scientific assistance as a reference laboratory. We perform phthalates and bisphenol A migration analysis and also look into the presence of lead or aluminium, and advise the authorities on the analyses performed by the official or approved laboratories. The results are then communicated to the FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, which monitors compliance with the rules on these matters (food additives, flavouring, new foods, etc.).

 

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