Introduction to Food Safety

Food safety issues are as old as mankind and since time immemorial humans have developed strategies to ensure that the food they eat does not harm them. To produce food with any new technology, there must be appropriate safeguards to protect human and animal health. There exist few written records, but it is reasonable to assume that, historically, the safety of new products of food was established by trial and error. The foods consumed today are generally viewed as safe, based on their long history of such safe use. It is worth noting that this general acceptance of historical safety does not necessarily mean that some traditional foods may not cause adverse health effects under some circumstances.

Microbial contaminants and potentially toxic chemicals, both natural and man-made, are considered to be the sources of most of the risks we face when we eat food. A top priority has been to make sure the public is protected from infectious agents such as food-borne viruses and bacteria, considered to be the leading source of food-borne illness. The safety of the chemicals present in foods is also an important consideration. This is because the average diet consists of numerous chemical substances. Some of these are natural plant chemicals that may be toxic because they are natural pesticides that are produced by plants themselves to protect them against insects and other herbivores; others are applied intentionally as additives or occur as unintentional contaminants such as pesticide residues.

Due to the complexity of food and the natural presence of potential hazards, the assurance of food safety is not a simple matter. Almost any single definition of safe food will be overly simplistic, because safe food is a complex, multifaceted concept. According to the World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food is considered safe if there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result from its consumption under anticipated conditions of use (CAC/GL45-2003). The FAO further explains that the goal of any safety assessment is to provide assurance, in the light of the best available scientific knowledge, that the food does not cause harm when prepared, used and/or eaten according to its intended use. The absolute safety of a food or an ingredient can never be guaranteed. However, with appropriate precautions during development, through manufacture into products, and in distribution, the risk from any food can be kept to an absolute minimum that is generally acceptable to consumers.

The safety of food derived from genetically modified crops should be addressed as an integral part of the much bigger issue of food safety. This is because genetically modified foods are not inherently less safe than their traditional counterparts (OECD 1993). Nevertheless, due to lack of past experience with GM foods and concerns about novel technologies, these foods have been subjected to rigorous safety assessment procedures that are not generally applied to traditional foods. The assessment of the safety of whole foods, which are complex and variable mixtures of many chemicals, is challenging compared to assessing the safety of individual chemicals Consequently new approaches have been developed to assist in assessing the safety of GM foods, including the core concept of “substantial equivalence”. This is a relative, rather than absolute, safety approach that relies on a broad comparison of the properties of the GM crop to those in related varieties of the crop that are not genetically modified and that would be considered as safe to consume.


Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC).2003. Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of food derived from recombinant DNA plants. CAC/GL45-2003.

OECD. 1993. Safety evaluation of foods derived by modern biotechnology, concepts and principles. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Paris.

Allan B. Liavoga, Ph.D. Food Safety Program Officer
African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE)
African Union/NEPAD Biosciences Initiative
O6 BP 9884 Ouagadougou 06 Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso