Our scientific work is typically based around four broad streams of science, illustrated in Figure 2.
Nutrition science is a well-established discipline influenced by ongoing research in fundamental sciences such as biochemistry and physiology. Knowledge of the multifunctional roles of nutrients in the human body continues to grow and adds to the challenge of undertaking nutrition risk assessments based on the best available evidence.
Our main activities related to nutrition in the context of food standards are assessment of the safety and benefits of vitamins, minerals and other nutritive substances added to food, the safety of novel foods, provision of scientific advice relevant to special population groups such as infants, the scientific substantiation of health claims, assessment of food allergy or intolerance data, and other questions related to nutrition. The addition of nutritive substances to foods continues to attract attention from a wide range of stakeholders.
Safety assessment of nutritive substances follows the well-established risk assessment framework, however the assessment of potential health benefits presents specific challenges, particularly with regard to the level of scientific evidence necessary to conclude that a substance when added to food will provide a clear health benefit. FSANZ will continue to work to address the issue of health benefits under the current strategy.
Foods are typically complex mixtures of nutrients that can act synergistically within a food and across combinations of foods, and there is a growing body of research on the health impact of specific dietary patterns. This has led to the concept of nutrition science moving from a reductionist (nutrient-focussed) to a holistic (food/diet-focussed) paradigm. FSANZ will monitor this area with respect to its impact on the risk assessment paradigm in relation to substances added to food.
A key area of concern in Australia and New Zealand is the increase in diet-related contributions to increased prevalence of lifestyle diseases, which are impacting on public health. A current priority of the Australia/New Zealand food regulation system is supporting the public health objectives to reduce chronic disease related to overweight and obesity (Ministerial Priority 2). In this context we have strengthened links with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to explore how we may work more closely on nutrition science and human health. We also note that the Australian Academy of Science has recently published “Nourishing Australia: A decadal plan for the science of nutrition". Successful implementation of this plan is anticipated to result in health benefits including reduced burden of chronic diseases from increased nutrition literacy, and greater understanding of cause-and-effect mechanisms linking dietary patterns to health and disease.
Monitoring of nutrients in our food supply is a key activity undertaken by FSANZ that provides the underpinning evidence to support nutrition related public health policy and risk assessments to inform regulatory decisions. Our food composition databases are published as a resource for a wide variety of stakeholders and purposes including standards development, nutrition labelling, research on diet and disease, education and to help consumers make better-informed food choices. This area of nutrition science also provides a fundamental contribution to the development of national nutrition surveys. National nutrition surveys provide detailed, national data on consumption of foods, beverages and, in some cases, dietary supplements. This quantitative data on food consumption is essential to the type of dietary intake assessments we conduct at FSANZ.
Chemical risk assessment
Chemical risk assessment brings together the disciplines of toxicology, epidemiology, biochemistry, chemistry, food science and exposure assessment to establish the safety of non-nutrient food chemicals such as food additives, processing aids, natural toxins, contaminants, agricultural and veterinary chemicals prior to their introduction to the market place. This work is essential to protect public health by ensuring that the presence or addition of non-nutrient food chemicals to the food supply does not unacceptably increase the risk of diet-related disease, including allergy, or long-term adverse effects such as the incidence of cancer in human populations.
A particular focus of our work under this strategy will be to continue to work with our academic and international regulatory partners to increase the harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies for food chemicals, and to increase transparency and consistency in regulatory decision-making. Where possible we will also seek to build consortia involving academic, research and industry partners to generate evidence to address complex regulatory problems. Increased harmonisation and consistency in scientific decisions will facilitate trade, reduce burden for industry and increase consumers' understanding of chemical food safety issues.
Key to ensuring that the assessments are appropriate to the Australia and New Zealand context is estimating local dietary exposure to food chemicals (or intake of nutrients) based on national food consumption data. Dietary exposure assessment methodologies are developed and agreed internationally and continue to evolve as more sophisticated modelling and data analysis capabilities are realised. FSANZ is recognised as a centre of excellence in this area in Australia and New Zealand. We continue to liaise with our international partners to ensure our procedures are consistent with international best practice, monitor and implement new relevant dietary exposure assessment methodologies, and utilise new or alternate data sets to fill current data gaps.
Microbiology and biotechnology
This stream includes all risk assessment areas of work relating to microbiology (such as food safety, foodborne illness, the microbiome and associated benefit outcomes of nutritive substances and innovative applications of microbes in food production) and biotechnology, including genetically modified (GM) food and new breeding techniques (NBTs).
Foodborne illness is a critical public health issue. Outbreaks of illness associated with food can have severe consequences for population health and also impact on the economy. FSANZ plays an integral role in the
National Foodborne Illness Reduction Strategy (Ministerial Priority 1) by building the evidence base (collating, assessing and analysing microbiological data) and assessing microbiological risks associated with a range of high-risk commodities. We also provide risk assessment advice on imported food to the Department of Agriculture with the aim of enabling safe food for the Australian population and to help facilitate trade. We will continue to update and improve our assessment methodologies and the microbiological evidence base through a range of collaborations with academia, CSIRO, industry and jurisdictions.
The focus of the biotechnology stream is to progress the regulation of NBTs in light of the current GM standard and make it fit-for-purpose. This work fits squarely under the modernisation agenda of Ministerial Priority 3 as it reflects a forward-thinking food regulatory system. FSANZ has the expertise and authorising environment to take a leading role in the scientific aspects and regulation of NBTs both nationally and internationally.
Social science and economics
Regulation exists to encourage or discourage particular behaviour by consumers and those in food industry. Developing regulation, that is both effective in altering behaviours and efficient in achieving the desired outcome, relies upon a solid evidence base. The social science and economics disciplines apply scientifically rigorous processes to study the behaviour of people and industry. We seek to:
1. understand existing consumer and business behaviour and its drivers
2. predict how a change to the Code will affect consumer and business behaviour
3. identify potential intended and unintended consequences of changes
4. analyse the potential economic and social costs and benefits.
Social science and economics will play a key part in addressing critical public health issues such as lifestyle diseases and foodborne illness. In 2019–23 we will: improve our Cost of Illness modelling for calculating the societal and economic costs of foodborne illness; determine the costs and benefits of potential restrictions on carbohydrate and sugar claims on alcoholic beverages; and consider how labelling of sugars could be improved to enable consumers to make informed choices. We will also work to better integrate our behavioural insights from the social sciences with our economic analysis of impacts. Initiating a regular collection of data on consumers' awareness, knowledge and understanding of food related issues will provide a robust evidence baseline from which to monitor impacts of changes to the food regulatory system.
This work provides a crucial function within FSANZ, as consumer and business behaviour is continuously changing. Thus, the technical expertise of FSANZ staff who explore processes that go beyond the physiological, is crucial in verifying or disproving assumptions about how consumers and businesses will react to regulatory measures. This is a crucial function as it ensures the reliability and relevance of FSANZ's regulations.