Very few traditional foods that are consumed have been subjected to systematic toxicological and nutritional assessment, yet because of their long history and customary preparation and use and absence of evidence of harm, they are generally regarded as safe to eat. This 'history of safe use' of traditional foods forms the benchmark for the comparative safety assessment of novel foods, and of foods derived from genetically modified organisms. However, the concept is hard to define, since it relates to an existing body of information which describes the safety profile of a food, rather than a precise checklist of criteria. The term should be regarded as a working concept used to assist the safety assessment of a food product. Important factors in establishing a history of safe use include: the period over which the traditional food has been consumed; the way in which it has been prepared and used and at what intake levels; its composition and the results of animal studies and observations from human exposure. This paper is aimed to assist food safety professionals in the safety evaluation and regulation of novel foods and foods derived from genetically modified organisms, by describing the practical application and use of the concept of 'history of safe use'.