Food consumption data: Knowing what Europeans eat is essential for protecting consumers

Feature story
11 July 2012

Are intakes of food additives safe for all population groups? Are consumers exposed through their diet to high levels of heavy metals such as cadmium? Which populations groups consume most shellfish? Could these foods include marine biotoxins which may be harmful to health? Does the food we eat provide us with the nutrition we need?

These are some of the many questions that EU risk assessors at EFSA and in Member States address in their work every day. Food consumption habits also differ in EU countries. When a new hazard is found in the food chain scientists must quickly assess who is exposed, through which foods and by how much. Accurate, comprehensive and comparable data on food consumption are crucial to accomplishing this task.

EFSA has made considerable progress in recent years to bring together data on food consumption habits. In 2007, the Authority initiated the collection of data from national dietary surveys in all Member States and its compilation in a new Concise European Food Consumption Database. This tool provided data on food consumption for adults in EU countries according to broad categories (e.g. milk and dairybased products) and subcategories (e.g. cheese) and was primarily used for exposure screening (identifying patterns or habits of consumption).

It also served as a starting point for EFSA to develop the Comprehensive European Food Consumption Database which provides more extensive and detailed information for a majority of EU countries in refined food categories and specific population groups, including children. The database enables quick screening and more precise estimates of chronic and acute exposure to substances and possible hazards that may be found in the food chain.

These databases are important tools in EFSA’s and other actors risk assessment work. However, EU Member States use different methods to collect food consumption data, which makes it difficult to carry out EU-wide analyses or comparisons between countries.

EFSA has therefore taken steps to harmonise the collection of food consumption data to allow for more comprehensive exposure assessments. The “What’s on the Menu in Europe?” (EU Menu) project aims to provide standardised information on what people eat in all countries and regions across the EU. This data will enable even more accurate exposure assessments in Europe and support risk managers in their decision making on food safety.

EFSA continues to extend and update the databases with new data collected by Member States when available. Thanks to this cooperation, food consumption summary statistics for different countries and age groups, previously unavailable at EU-level, are now accessible for use by all food safety and public health experts.