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Food industry ‘too secretive’ about research into nanotechnology

By By Rick Pendrous, 08-Jan-2010

Food manufacturers’ reluctance to disclose what research they are carrying out on products using nanotechnology risks a public backlash similar to that which occurred against genetically modified (GM) foods, warned the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

In its report, Nanotechnologies and Food published today, the UK Committee is highly critical of the food industry for failing to be transparent about its research into the uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials.

The group also urged the government and Research Councils to adequately fund research into potential health and safety risks arising from the use of nanomaterials in the food sector. In particular, it is concerned about significant gaps in the understanding of how nanomaterials impact toxicologically on the human body and the associated risks.

Chairman of the Committee Lord Krebs said: "The use of nanotechnologies in food and food packaging is likely to grow significantly over the next decade. The technologies have the potential to deliver some significant benefits to consumers but it is important that detailed and thorough research into potential health and safety implications in this area is undertaken now to ensure that any possible risks are identified.”

It noted that transparency is key for ensuring public trust in both food safety and scientific developments, and argued that, although there is no evidence that the use of nanotechnologies in food currently presents a threat to consumer safety, food companies’ failure to publish or discuss details of their research is likely to undermine public confidence in the technology.

"The food industry was very reluctant to put its head above the parapet and declare openly what kind of research was going on to develop the use of nanotechnologies in food,” said Krebs. “Part of the reason for that is the food industry got its fingers burned over the last round of novel technology, namely GM technology. So their attitude is to keep a very low profile and not to talk too loudly about what they may or may not be doing.”

Online nano register and confidential database

Rather than seeking a legal requirement for the labelling of foods containing nanoparticles in the EU – similar to that required for foods containing genetically modified organisms – the Committee wants the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to supervise a publicly available online register of food and food packaging containing nanomaterials in products that are already on the market. “It’s not clear what value labelling would be to the consumer,” said Krebs.

"The public can expect to have access to information about the food they eat, but it is equally important that that information should be comprehensive and balanced,” he added. “That is why we consider the right approach to providing information about nanomaterials in the food sector is through a public register, rather than by the blanket labelling of nanomaterials which may not be helpful in assisting consumers to make informed choices."

But this view is unlikely to find favour with consumer groups and may prove to be at odds with the outcome of the European Commission’s consultation on nanotechnologies, which ends on February 19. This may well call for labelling to be required by law.

However, in addition to a voluntary publicly available register, the Committee also wants another mandatory confidential database of all research on nanotechnology in the UK to be created and managed by the FSA to inform risk assessment. This second list would be confidential to protect companies’ commercial interests, said Committee chairman, Lord Krebs.

Call for clear definition

The Committee also called for nanomaterials to be defined clearly in food legislation to ensure their use in food is subject to appropriate risk assessment procedures. It recommended that regulatory definitions should use a ‘change in functionality’ – based on how a substance interacts with the body – as the criterion that distinguishes a nanomaterial from its larger form, to make sure that any nano-sized materials with novel properties are included, rather than the current definition of those below 100nm [nanometres] in size.

Another reason for this definition, said Krebs, was to distinguish between engineered nanoparticles and those naturally occurring in foods, such as ricotta cheese, chocolate and ice cream. “We are talking about a diversity of entities, some naturally occurring, some engineered; some persistent, some degraded rapidly inside the body,” he added.