Speaking at the EFFoST (European Federation of Food Science and Technology) conference in Montpellier, France on Wednesday, Martinovic called for greater harmonisation of food safety regulations in order to avoid situations in which large quantities of foods are recalled and discarded because of a very small risk from unauthorised levels of additives.
"There is a huge need for the harmonisation of food safety regulations worldwide," she said. "This would make a huge difference to food wastage caused by tiny amounts of substances in foods."
She cited the 2003 UK recall of Worcestershire sauce as one example, when unauthorised Sudan I red food colouring was detected in Worcestershire sauce, leading to a recall with an estimated cost of €150m. Extrapolating from animal data, Martinovic said that a person would have needed to consume 800 litres of Worcestershire sauce every day for two years in order to reach the level of consumption at which a carcinogenic effect was observed in rodents. Indeed, the UK government also said at the time that the risk was "likely to be very small."
"Coffee and salt can also contribute to cancer," she said, adding that dosage level was the most important factor in determining whether a substance was dangerous to health or not.
More recently, several shipments of orange juice were not permitted for entry to the United States earlier this year when they was found to exceed a 10 parts per billion (ppb) threshold for carbendazim. Samples tested for the fungicide ranged from 13 to 36 ppb. For comparison, the European Union allows a threshold in the range of 100 to 700ppb.
"As a result, trade and consumer confidence with the USA was disrupted," said Martinovic.
Referring to the work of the Global Harmonisation Initiative, she said: "The main aim is consensus between food scientists, not between governments or industry or any other stakeholders."
However, she called for science-based regulations to ensure that consumers are not scared by new technologies.