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Risk Assessment vs. Risk Management: What’s the Difference?


(This article was posted April 16, 2014, on the European Food Safety Authority website and is reposted here with permission.)

The decision to separate the tasks of risk assessment and risk management just over a decade ago has transformed the safety of Europe’s food. And, while there is wide recognition that this change has strengthened the safety of the food chain, uncertainty can still exist over the difference in roles and responsibilities of risk assessors and risk managers.

Ensuring that food is safe from farm to fork is complex and challenging. It demands that strict safety measures are applied at all stages of the supply chain. Risk assessment and risk management are central pillars in this process.

Separation of roles

So what is the difference between these two key activities? Risk assessors provide independent scientific advice on potential threats in the food chain. Risk managers use this advice as a basis for making decisions to address these issues. At a European level, this separation of roles is fundamental and enshrined in law. It was introduced to make clear the distinction between science and politics and to place independent science-based assessment at the heart of policy-making.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) plays a pivotal role in ensuring that Europe’s food is safe. But it is just one part of an EU-wide framework which includes many different partners. EFSA is the principal risk assessor in Europe, evaluating threats associated with the food chain. The risk managers are the European Commission, Member State authorities and the European Parliament. Between them, they are responsible for developing policies, authorizing products and making laws regarding food based on EFSA’s scientific advice.

Advice, not authorization

For example, EFSA evaluates the safety of GMO applications on a case-by-case basis. The Authority’s role ends there. It is the risk managers in the European Commission and Member States who decide whether to authorize each GMO. The same is true in a host of other areas: for pesticides such as neonicotinoids, for food contact materials used in food packaging and for feed additives, to name a few. In each case, EFSA provides independent science-based advice, and risk managers decide on the appropriate action using the Authority’s expert conclusions as the foundation for their decisions.

So how does EFSA work? It is a common misconception that scientists at EFSA carry out experiments and use the results as the basis for its scientific opinions. EFSA does not have laboratories nor does it generate new scientific research.

Instead, EFSA is tasked under EU law with collecting existing research and data. The Authority’s scientists then analyze this information and produce scientific advice to support decision-making by risk managers.

The food that reaches consumers’ plates is safer today than it has ever been – although important work always remains to be done. Central to this ongoing progress is the split between risk assessment and risk management – separating the experts who deliver science-based opinions from those charged with implementing rules based on this advice.

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