TraceGains sat down with Jennifer McEntire, VP Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh Produce Association, to discuss the difference between hazards and risks.
What is the difference between a hazard and a risk?
McEntire: A hazard means something has the potential to cause harm. Whereas a risk means there is a probability or likelihood for something to cause harm.
Can you elaborate?
McEntire: Here’s a typical consumer example: When you ask people if they would willingly inject themselves with the deadliest natural toxin known to us, they will tell you “no.” Yet, people who don’t want wrinkles get Botox injections. Botulinum toxin is a hazard, it has the potential to cause serious harm, often death, but it depends on the dose. At a shallow dose, people find a benefit to it. So, it’s a hazard either way, but it becomes a risk when the dose is higher.
In the food industry, there’s contemplation around pesticides. In a hazard analysis, it’s appropriate to identify that a pesticide is there, that it’s a potential hazard that could be present. To determine if it needs to be actively controlled, you need to consider the risk of that hazard. It might be there, but will it cause harm at the levels found on the product? Generally speaking, FDA, USDA, and other authorities overwhelmingly said the answer is “no.” Just because you can detect the hazard doesn’t mean it will cause harm. Presence doesn’t equal risk.
How is this being communicated to the consumer?
McEntire: There’s a terrible misunderstanding that just because we found something, that isn’t good. The average person views risk as it’s there or it’s not – “Do I have risk or do I not have risk?”— not recognizing that it’s a spectrum from low risk to high risk.
Since we have better detection and attribution methods on the microbiological side, we’ll detect more outbreaks. That doesn’t mean there are more outbreaks or illnesses; we’re just identifying them. If we don’t look, we won’t find it; it doesn’t mean it’s not there or wasn’t there before. Now we’re looking, and we’re finding it — and it was there all along. And that’s going to look worse to the consumer when, in reality, things are better now. The communication around this to the consumer is going to be a tremendous challenge.
The best way to communicate with the consumer is by using analogies, rather than scientific jargon. For example, likening concentration of something to one drop in all of Lake Michigan helps people relate. Hopefully, that helps put risk in perspective.
Dr. Jennifer McEntire
Dr. Jennifer McEntire is Vice President of Food Safety and Technology at United Fresh Produce Association. Dr. McEntire has held previous positions with the Grocery Manufacturer's Association (GMA), The Acheson Group, USDA, and the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).