Reducing risks from foodborne pathogens is an essential part of every food manufacturer’s responsibility to protect both its customers and its business. It is most important to identify and regulate foods that are likely to make someone sick. Microbiological risk assessment (MRA) can be effectively used as a tool to manage the risks posed by foodborne microbiological hazards. MRA acts as a basic framework for a modern food safety system and helps in identifying potential microbial hazards and possible adverse consequences arising from consumption of foods containing microbial pathogens and/or microbial toxins. MRA also helps in identifying control or management strategies that help in reducing potential microbial risks in food. Risk assessment plays a pivotal role in the whole risk analysis process, which is composed of three components: risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication (illustrated in Figure 1 below).
Microbial Risk Assessment
Hazard identification. Hazard identification is the first step in risk assessment. It helps in identifying potential microorganism(s) of concern capable of causing adverse health effects which may be present in specific food and/or processes. In general, these microbial hazards are identified from publicly available databases such as published literature, epidemiological studies, foodborne disease reports, etc. It also provides information such as types of disease caused (e.g., acute or chronic), the modes in which the microorganism(s) affect the host (e.g., microorganism vs. its toxin byproduct), and the target susceptible populations (children, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals, etc.). Both experience and analytical data are crucial for identifying realistic microbial hazards. For a realistic approach the hazards must be identified to the source (e.g., waterborne or foodborne). Also, the hazard identification should include an assessment of impact of the hazard on human health such as when, where, how, etc.
Hazard characterization. In MRA, the hazard characterization step provides a qualitative or quantitative description of the severity and duration of adverse health effects that may result from the ingestion of a group of microorganism(s) or the toxin byproduct in food. In short, the step determines the relationship between a pathogen and any related adverse effect. At this point, the severity of the health effect also must be considered.
Exposure assessment. The goal of the exposure assessment is to evaluate the qualitative or quantitative probability of microorganism(s) or the toxin byproduct in a food product at the time of consumption. This also includes the probability of microorganism(s) or the toxin as exposures from other sources including space. Additionally, the microbiological exposure assessment should include the interactive characterization of the source(s), the route(s) of exposure, and the pathogen prevalence/occurrence in the evaluation of the magnitude and frequency of exposure to a microbial pathogen and/or the toxin.
Risk characterization. Risk characterization is the last step in MRA; its purpose is to determine the quantitative and/or qualitative estimation of the probability of occurrence and severity of known potential adverse health effects in a given population. Here, the exposure and dose-response assessments are integrated to mathematically estimate the overall probability of the effect on public health. This estimation is based on hazard identification, hazard characterization, and exposure assessment.
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