Hazard, risk study helps combat food fear

Should genetically modified products be labelled? Is organic healthier?

Does glyphosate cause cancer? Do you put your kids at risk if you feed them meat or is the cave-man diet the way to go?

All of these questions, and a few conspiracy theories, flood Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools.

Celebrities are using “food fear” to promote themselves, their latest books and their latest lifestyle products. It is a deluge of information and misinformation.

What should consumers really believe? What should we think about when filling our grocery basket?

It boils down to two words: hazard and risk.

It is possible that a meteorite will fall on your head in the next 10 minutes. This is a hazard. But should this hazard dictate what we do every day?

Some might call this is an absurd example, but it is just as real, and more likely, as most of the food fears that people pump out through social media every day.

We deal with hazards practically every day. How we deal with them is determined by the likelihood that something will occur and what can be done to mitigate trouble.

The probability of that meteorite hitting either of us is infinitesimally small (but it is not zero). There is almost no risk so we don’t have to change our lives.

Crossing the street is a hazardous operation, but we can mitigate this by looking both ways for traffic.

The same principles apply to food. Everything can be a hazard. Drink a lot of water too fast and your electrolyte balance will be upset and you will die.

This is a hazard, but not much of a risk because the problem can be easily avoided.

Feed a rat nothing but raw potatoes for its entire life and it might develop tumours. This shows a hazard, but it is not a complete assessment of risk and does not mean that we need to stop eating potatoes.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has assigned the hazard classification “probably carcinogenic to humans” seventy-nine times, including to shift work, hot beverage and glyphosate.

But we need to remember that “hazard” is only one part of the equation. When we assess risk in our daily lives, we must also consider probability and the ability to take mitigating action.

It is the job of Heath Canada regulators to look beyond potential hazard and protect Canadians through science-based risk assessments.

The Pest Management Regulatory Agency employs more than 350 scientists whose sole purpose is to evaluate new and existing insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. The risk, not just the hazards, are assessed.

Glyphosate is the world’s most commonly used pesticide, which might explain why it is a common target for those who want to ban it.

But how do consumers decide who to believe: the farmer who says it is safe or the activist who wants it banned?

Recently, the PMRA released its re-evaluation of the safety of glyphosate. The work was carried out over seven years and was extensive, including review and incorporation of more than 450 peer-reviewed, published scientific studies.

The PMRA has issued unequivocal findings stating that products containing glyphosate are unlikely to affect your health (when used according to label directions.)

The agency also explained that a hazard classification, such as the one issued by IRAC, is not a health risk assessment.

The level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, must also be taken into account.

What’s more, on April 12, the Canadian Food inspection Agency released a report on the testing of Canadian food for glyphosate residue. The CFIA’s report, appropriately titled “Safeguarding with Science,” reported, “no human health concerns were identified.”

The work done by Health Canada helps us sort through the conflicting “facts” coming from all sides.

Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada.

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