Nanotechnology refers to controlling matter at an atomic or molecular scale measured in nanometers, or millionths of millimeters. In the food industry, the technology has a variety of uses including detecting bacteria in packaging, producing stronger flavors and colorings, or better delivery of micronutrients.
The coalition behind the lawsuit is led by the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), on behalf of fellow plaintiffs Friends of the Earth, Food and Water Watch, the Center for Environmental Health, the ETC Group, and the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy.
“Nano means more than tiny; it means materials that have the capacity to be fundamentally different,” said ICTA attorney George Kimbrell.
The FDA currently has no specific regulations relating to the use of nanotechnology in food, but has repeatedly said it already has the tools and authority to deal with nanotech product safety. However, in June 2011, the agency issued draft guidance for industry on nanotechnology, saying it was a “first step toward providing regulatory clarity on FDA’s approach to nanotechnology”.
Executive director of Food & Water Watch Wenonah Hauter said: "It is unacceptable that the FDA continues to allow unregulated and unlabeled nanomaterials to be used in products consumers use every day. It is past time for this agency to live up to its mission and protect public health by assessing the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, and to require labeling so that consumers know where these new materials are being used.”
The FDA has said that the safety of nanotechnology in food ingredients and food contact materials is not necessarily about size, but rather about whether properties are changed when working with a particular substance on the nano scale.
However, Steve Suppan of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy claims that nanomaterials should be subjected to specific tests to account for their novel capacities.
“The FDA must do such testing as part of a pre-market safety assessment in a broader regulatory initiative to protect public health,” he said.
The groups’ original 2006 petition can be downloaded here.