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Approaches for the risk assessment of carcinogens in food have evolved as scientific knowledge has advanced. Early methods allowed little more than hazard identification and an indication of carcinogenic potency. Evaluation of the modes of action of carcinogens and their broad division into genotoxic and epigenetic (non-genotoxic, non-DNA reactive) carcinogens have played an increasing role in determining the approach followed and provide possibilities for more detailed risk characterisation, including provision of quantitative estimates of risk. Reliance on experimental animal data for the majority of risk assessments and the fact that human exposures to dietary carcinogens are often orders of magnitude below doses used in experimental studies has provided a fertile ground for discussion and diverging views on the most appropriate way to offer risk assessment advice. Approaches used by national and international bodies differ, with some offering numerical estimates of potential risks to human health, while others express considerable reservations about the validity of quantitative approaches requiring extrapolation of dose–response data below the observed range and instead offer qualitative advice. Recognising that qualitative advice alone does not provide risk managers with information on which to prioritise the need for risk management actions, a “margin of exposure” approach for substances that are both genotoxic and carcinogenic has been developed, which is now being used by the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority. This review describes the evolution of risk assessment advice on carcinogens and discusses examples of ways in which carcinogens in food have been assessed in Europe.