Posted: January 8, 2010

UK criticizes food industry for failing to be transparent about nanotechnology

(Nanowerk News) The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee today criticises the food industry for failing to be transparent about its research into the uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials.
In their report, Nanotechnologies and Food, the Committee notes that transparency and honesty are key components for ensuring public trust in both food safety and scientific developments, and argue that the approach of food companies in not publishing or discussing details of its research in this area is unhelpful. The Committee acknowledges that the food industry is right to be concerned about negative public reactions to developments in nanotechnologies but asserts that appearing to be secretive about its research “is exactly the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction it is trying to avert.”
The Committee also urges 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.
The report highlights that there are significant gaps in the understanding of how nanomaterials impact on the human body, and that it is not currently possible to predict what risks specific nanomaterials may present. There is only a limited amount of research looking at the toxicological impact of nanomaterials, and just one research team working on the impact of nanomaterials on the gut in the United Kingdom. The Committee calls on the Research Councils to establish more proactive forms of funding to encourage research bids which address the severe shortfalls in research required for the effective risk assessment of nanomaterials in food. It states that the Government should ensure that research is commissioned which focuses specifically on the behaviour of nanomaterials within the body and particularly the gut.
The report argues that such research is needed for effective and reliable risk assessments which will be crucial in ensuring the public are confident about the safety of nanomaterials in food.
The report recommends that the Food Standards Agency should contribute to consumer confidence in the use of nanomaterials in food by maintaining a publicly available register of food and food packaging containing nanomaterials. This register could be made available online. The Committee argues that this is a more appropriate mechanism for ensuring that accurate and up to date information on the use of nanomaterials is available to the public than a requirement that all food products containing nanomaterials be labelled.
The Committee calls for nanomaterials to be defined clearly in food legislation to ensure that all uses of nanomaterials in food are subject to appropriate risk assessment procedures. They recommend that regulatory definitions should use a change in functionality, i.e. 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. The report also recommends that the Government work with other EU nations to clarify what is meant by the phrase “properties that are characteristic to the nanoscale” in the draft definition proposed for the revised Novel Foods Regulation, by the inclusion in legislation of a more detailed list of what these properties comprise.
The Committee also raises concerns about the potential for the illegal importation of food products containing nanomaterials not approved for use in food in the EU. The report points out that it is difficult to regulate food products ordered on the internet, and that there is a danger that UK consumers could be exposed to products that have not been approved as safe by the EU. The Committee also points out that tests to check whether imported food contains nanomaterials are not yet available to border and port authorities. The report suggests that, although there is no evidence that the use of nanotechnologies in food presents a clear and present threat to consumer safety, these concerns should be dealt with by providing consumers with information about products containing nanomaterials, and by the Government ensuring that practical tests are developed for enforcement authorities to use on imported food.
Commenting, Lord Krebs, who chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Nanotechnologies and Food, 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. The Government and Research Councils have a responsibility to ensure that this research takes place and must now take a proactive approach to identifying and funding appropriate research.
“The food industry must also be more open with the public about research it has undertaken in this area and where it sees nanomaterials being used in food production in the future. The lesson from the public reaction to GM foods is that secrecy breeds mistrust, and that openness and transparency are crucial to maintain public confidence.
“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. 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.”
Source: House of Lords Science and Technology Committee