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Posted: March 29, 2009

What people think about emerging food technology

(Nanowerk News) People remain cautious about the emergence of new food technologies according to a review of existing research, published by the Food Standards Agency in the UK.
The report – Public attitudes to emerging food technologies (pdf download, 700 KB) – which looks at research since 1999, brings together knowledge from the UK and beyond, on public opinion about up-and-coming food technologies, such as nanotechnologies and cloning. The findings will help to shape the FSA’s future work on emerging technologies.
According to the research, GM and animal cloning remain the areas of most concern for people. However, the review also showed that food technologies tended not to be a burning issue for the vast majority of people and often did not generate strong opinions.
Clair Baynton, Head of Novel Foods, Additives and Supplements at the Agency, said: 'Our top priority is to ensure the food on the shelves is as safe as it possibly can be, but we also need to be aware of how people feel about new technologies. Because so little tends to be known about emerging food technologies, attitudes towards them are frequently driven by emotions rather than facts. Understandably, people are wary when they’re not sure about the benefits and risks.
'The FSA is working with Government departments and Europe to assess information and potential hazards in relation to the future use of technologies in the food sector.'
The research looked at public opinion concerning:
  • nanotechnologies
  • functional foods
  • synthetic biology
  • GM food and crops
  • cloning
  • irradiation
  • novel food processes
  • The science behind the story
    Nanotechnologies
    Nanotechnology is the manufacture and use of materials and structures at the nanometre scale (a nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre). There is some interest in using nanometre scale materials in food packaging, which could keep food fresher for longer, or monitor the quality of the food. Nanotechnologies can also be applied to food to help better absorption of vitamins or to help reduce fat or salt content of our food.
    Functional foods
    This is a loosely defined marketing term that is applied to foods containing added ingredients that have a supposed health benefit. Examples might be probiotic yoghurts, or cholesterol-lowering spreads.
    Synthetic biology
    Synthetic biology is a developing area of science, where it may be possible to build completely new organisms or biological systems by assembling genes in a laboratory. This is very much at the experimental stage and there are no current or proposed food applications.
    Genetically modified (GM) food
    Genetic modification involves altering a plant, animal or micro-organism's genes or inserting genes from another organism – that is, a living thing. Genes carry the instructions for all the characteristics that an organism inherits. They are made up of DNA. A number of GM foods have been cleared for use in the EU, although the use of these GM foods is not widespread in the UK.
    Cloned animals
    Cloning involves the creation of an animal (the clone) that is an exact genetic copy of another (the donor). Clones occur in nature and many plants, such as strawberries, reproduce in this way. Some animals also clone themselves, such as amoeba (a microscopic single-celled organism) and some insects, such as greenfly. There is no cloning of animals for food production in the UK and marketing of food from cloned animals would require authorisation under the novel foods law.
    Irradiation
    Irradiation can be used to kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning. It can also delay fruit ripening, help stop vegetables such as potatoes and onions from sprouting and delay other deterioration. It is a process that produces a similar effect to pasteurisation, cooking or other forms of heat treatment, but irradiation only raises the temperature of food by a few degrees and so there is less impact on taste, look and texture.
    Novel food processes
    This is a general term that applies to new ways of processing foods. Examples from the recent past include the use of microwave ovens to heat and cook foods, and the use of high pressure processing as a low-temperature alternative to pasteurisation e.g. for 'fresh-tasting' long life orange juice.
    Source: Food Standards Agency
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