Nanotechnology promises big benefits for food safety, quality, and shelf life provided the challenges it brings can be overcome, delegates were told at the Institute of Food Technology's annual conference at Anaheim, California.
"There's great potential for nanoscience in food industry applications," said Bernadene Magnuson, senior scientific and regulatory consultant in food toxicology with Cantox Health Sciences International, Ontario, Canada. The technology, which harnesses the use of particles between one and 100 nanometers in length, could be used to provide anti-microbial coatings for food contact surfaces or packaging.
Other applications include using nanoscience to engineer sensors to detect pathogens and toxins in food or to register environmental changes. For example, nanochips in smart inks used for food packaging could register warnings if the temperature of the package rose above certain programmed limits.
But unlocking nanoscience's vast potential depends on overcoming five significant challenges, warned Magnuson. Those included: safety in the workplace, distinguishing between natural nanoparticles and those introduced by human intervention, economics, an uncertain regulatory future and food safety.
Safeguarding employees who use materials such as nano-silver in powdered form was the first challenge identified by Magnuson. That depended on developing accurate and reliable methods of assessing exposure in the workplace.
It is also vital to distinguish between pre-existing nano materials in food and those resulting from human intervention. In a separate presentation, Jose Aguilera, professor of chemical and bioprocess engineering at the University of Santiago, Chile, highlighted the presence of nano particles in milk. "The cow's udder is a nanodevice synthesizing, assembling and dispensing proteins and fat into an acqueous phase where they later become building blocks for a myriad of protein structures," he explained.
Nanotechnology must be relatively cheap to develop and to use while the cost gaining Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval should be clear and not be prohibitively expensive. Yet at present, FDA has no nano scale definition, confirmed the administration's Annette McCarthy.
In addition, there should be no contamination of agrochemicals in food products and the environmental impact and fate of nano particles should be well-understood.
Magnuson told FoodProductionDaily.com that she knew of only one food application of nanoscience, focusing on beta carotene, but a number of food packaging applications.
Getting the nanotechnology message right
Meanwhile, John Floros, former IFT president and head of the Food Science Department at Pennsylvania State University, made an impassioned plea for scientists, academics and journalists to learn from mistakes made with biotechnology. "It's not government's responsibility to advocate (nanotechnology) or appease consumer issues. It's up to us scientists and academics to convey the right message."
The media too should learn from the past, he said. "The press has a tendency to project fear by portraying things in black and white. That needs to change."