The four steps of risk assessment
Scientists identify biological hazards (such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and moulds) or chemical hazards (such as residues of pesticides or veterinary drugs) present in food.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical compound found in plant constituents such as coffee and cocoa beans, tea leaves, guarana berries and the kola nut, and has a long history of human consumption. It is added to a variety of foods, such as baked pastries, ice creams, sweets, and cola drinks, and is also found in “energy drinks”.
Food-borne hazards can have different health effects from stomach pain to tumours. In rare cases they might be fatal. Scientists study the nature of these health effects and where possible risk assessors calculate a safe level of exposure for consumers.
Short-term adverse effects of caffeine on adults and children can include interrupted sleep, anxiety and behavioural changes. In the longer term, excessive caffeine consumption has been linked to cardiovascular problems and, in pregnant women, stunted foetus development.
Scientists need to find out the amount of a hazard present in our food and how much of these foods people of different ages eat. To do so, they use data on chemicals in food and food consumption from across Europe collected by Member States.
Because caffeine is found in so many commonly consumed products, all population groups are exposed to possible negative effects. Average daily intakes vary among Member States, with a maximum of about 320mg a day for adults and 360mg a day for the elderly.
Finally, risk assessors draw conclusions on the level of risk. If exposure is above the recommended safe levels, there may be a safety concern for consumers in general or specific groups.
Most people are not at risk but high consumers – such as adults consuming more than 400mg of caffeine a day – may need to control their intake.
Political decision-makers use risk assessment advice to consider how to reduce consumer exposure to potential hazards in the food chain, such as caffeine in food. This may include, for example, advice on eating and lifestyle habits, or controls on commercial food production.