TNO focus on food safety and risk management

Posted: 23 May 2007 | Hilde Cnossen & Marijke van Dusseldorp, TNO Quality of Life | No comments yet

TNO Quality of Life is one of the five core areas of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. TNO carries out research aimed at providing concrete solutions to problems encountered by industry and government bodies in six areas of activity: Work and Employment, Chemistry, Innovation Policy, Prevention and Healthcare, Pharma and Food and Nutrition. […]

TNO Quality of Life is one of the five core areas of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. TNO carries out research aimed at providing concrete solutions to problems encountered by industry and government bodies in six areas of activity: Work and Employment, Chemistry, Innovation Policy, Prevention and Healthcare, Pharma and Food and Nutrition.

In the area Food and Nutrition TNO works along three research themes which are interrelated:

  • Product and Process Innovation
  • Health
  • Food safety

In this feature we like to inform you about our activities in the latter area and especially in the field of food safety and risk management. For more information on our services on Product and Process Innovation, and Health please visit our website,

Food safety and risk management

Food safety is an extremely important requirement and responsibility to be met by the food industry. Art. 19 (GFL) lays down that if a food producer considers or has reason to believe that a food which it has imported, produced or distributed is not in compliance with the food safety requirements, he shall immediately initiate procedures to withdraw this food from the market. In our approach to food safety, we perform risk assessment (microbiological, toxicological, and nutritional) and risk management studies for customers. This information is key to decision makers in both the food and feed industries and national and European government bodies.

We assist food companies in assessing, controlling and managing the risks they encounter both in food safety and quality. These risks can be issue or incident related and might need to be solved immediately, or they can be vulnerabilities that need to be addressed properly and timely in order to prevent it from becoming an issue or incident. We act as consultants and have ample facilities and expertise for practical assistance. Generally, our activities are targeting three levels: the scientific networks, the food chain (where companies have to deal with food legislation (e.g. Cnossen & Heeres, 2006), liability, tracking and tracing, chain information management and increasing self regulation), and the operational management where companies need quick analytical methods, contra-expertise, supply chain management and management of known and emerging risks.

Good risk management in the food industry requires monitoring and tracing of a broad spectrum of parameters that affect the product quality and safety throughout all the stages of the production and distribution process. There is much innovation in production processes going on (some highlights of product and process innovation are presented elsewhere in this article). As production processes are getting more complex and sophisticated and chains spread out geographically into global networks, the amount and complexity of information a company has to deal with is ever increasing. There is also a need for a more planned and strategic approach. In our view, information management on company level and throughout the supply chain is becoming an integral part of the operational management of each company. We regard this as an essential tool for food companies in dealing with safety and quality requirements in a pro-active and cost-effective way. Therefore, we utilise our information networks and databases (e.g. concerning toxicity and transfer of components from feed to food), and develop information management systems for companies. It is our objective to help companies with analysing the information and presenting it in an organised and prioritised way.

TNO has assisted several companies in improving and refining their policies in relation to their total quality and safety risk management. A visit to the company, assessing the policy and management systems in place, interviewing key people and sometimes analysis of samples, can lead to simple but relevant recommendations.

Allergen Management

A hot topic nowadays is allergen management. Legislation is becoming stricter, and the attention for control of labelling and management of cross contamination is increasing. Currently EU law does not cover cross contamination and scientific underpinning of threshold levels is only starting. We assist companies in their management of allergens and cross contamination, for example by assessing the current procedures, auditing the actual cleaning methods and analysing product samples to verify the presence or rather absence of allergens.

TNO developed a risk assessment model for allergens in food, based on probabilistic techniques resulting in a quantitative risk assessment and detailed information on the predicted number of allergic reactions in a population (Spanjersberg et al., 2006). This approach is now recognised as a way forward in allergen risk assessment (Health Council of the Netherlands, 2007). Using the probabilistic approach, we can assess the risk, which gives a more reliable and practical outcome than the common procedure of worst case scenarios. Worst case scenarios are based on the assumption that even the slightest amount can trigger a reaction which is only true for a small number of allergy patients. Our approach takes into account the distribution of the concentration of allergens in a product, and the distribution of threshold levels in the population.

Emergency Response Service

Even when companies pay optimal attention to the prevention of incidents, it is a fact of life that incidents or accidents occur. In such cases immediate action and response is required. Sometimes a product recall might be considered. Always trusted and sound information is necessary in the interest of public health and to safeguard a company’s reputation. When a crisis situation arises, our 24 hour worldwide Emergency Response Service is on standby. This service has the possibility to cluster a broad range of TNO expertises from chemical analysis, microbiology, identification of foreign bodies, flavour research, and packaging, to health risk evaluations and legislation. The Emergency Response Service has been operating for over fifteen years and currently handles more than 200 crisis situations each year. The wealth of experience and knowledge that has been built up in this time ensures that problems are solved quickly, effectively and adequately.

Additional to the Emergency Response Service activities we offer services to support companies through training of staff in crisis management.

Innovative projects on food safety

The growing complexity of food production chains, or rather networks, and their globalisation worries many stakeholders. They loose sight of the new or emerging risks and vulnerabilities, on safety, quality and social responsibility issues. The information flow is changing and increasing and becomes more difficult to handle. On the other hand information is exchanged easily around the globe nowadays. As a consequence, stakeholders express a need for tools and consultancy allowing them to keep an overview, to decide continuously on priorities.

TNO invests in innovative research topics driven by major stakeholders in the food production chain. The food safety research program focuses on the development of efficient and cost-effective procedures to assess the safety of complex food or feed products and matrices and on reduction of food production chain vulnerability.

Our risk management based research intends to support individual businesses, as part of a greater network, to assess their vulnerabilities and by doing so prevent possible incidents and or reduce the consequences thereof. Vulnerability covers both food safety and food quality issues. Under this program, TNO also participates in several EU- funded research projects with partners throughout Europe.

TNO’s program on chain vulnerability reduction consists of method development for chain vulnerability assessment, tools for quantification and prioritisation (management and control options), innovative information technology based instruments for emerging risks identification and chain management, and new methodology for quick screening, monitoring and identifying chemical and microbiological contaminants, also for in line, at line and on line use.

One of our innovative research projects links with the EC funded project ‘Developing a Stakeholders’ Guide on the vulnerability of food and feed chains to dangerous agents and substances’ (Sigma Chain, FP6-518451). Here, TNO works together with ten partners from Europe and Brazil. Chain vulnerability varies depending on chain type, and case studies are being conducted on four “high vulnerability” products, representing three major categories of chains. The products are: drinking water (i.e. a rapid contamination chain), milk powder (i.e. a batch mixing chain), and both poultry meat and farmed salmon (i.e. long geographic chains). Based on these cases, a risk model will be developed to provide quantitative risk assessments of chain vulnerability. The Guide to be developed will enable the stakeholder to input specific chain data for a product, to produce associated chain maps, to assess the contamination risks and to examine risk minimisation options, such as enhanced security of the most vulnerable links.

In the Food Informatics project TNO develops methods to identify potential emerging threats for the human food chain. Food safety incidents constitute a serious threat to human health and can cause significant economical damage. For example, in 2002 the potential carcinogen acrylamide suddenly hit the headlines after the discovery that acrylamide is formed while heating carbohydrate rich foods, like chips. Within Food Informatics we develop an information system that helps us to find hidden relations within a world of rapidly growing volumes of information. For this goal TNO participates in the project called the Virtual Laboratory for e-Science (, where more than 20 organisations and over 100 scientists of different disciplines work together. The early identification of emerging risks will help both the food industry and food safety authorities to develop risk management options in time.

This article presented some highlights of our work in food safety and risk management and our approach on how to manage food safety in food companies taking into account the food supply network, in a way that business continuity is guaranteed, and if necessary, incidents are being solved as quickly as possible.

Food and health play a pivotal role in today’s society, both for consumers and industry, and food safety is crucial here. TNO performs research-related, consulting, and analytical activities for many clients and research partners. In some cases TNO provides the missing piece of information or assists in cases of emergency, while in other events TNO is involved in the entire process, from strategy definition to implementation.


  1. Cnossen, H.J. & H.L. Heeres, 2006. Introducing food ingredients. New Food 9(3):40, 42-43
  2. Health Council of the Netherlands, 2007. Food allergy. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands. Publication no. 2007/07
  3. Spanjersberg, M.Q.I., Kruizinga, A.G., Rennen, M.A.J., Houben, G.F., 2007. Risk assessment and food allergy: the probabilistic model applied to allergens. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 45: 49-54.

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