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Posted: January 20, 2010
Supermarkets urged to lead debate on nanotechnology in foods
(Nanowerk News) Big-name retailers like Tesco and Carrefour should help prepare consumers for innovations in the food sector, according to the top civil servant in the EU executive's directorate for health and consumer protection.
Robert Madelin, director-general of the European Commission's DG Sanco, told a meeting of retailers that supermarkets needed to be upfront in explaining the risks and benefits of advances such as nanotechnology.
Pointing to the genetically-modified (GM) food fiasco of the 1990s, he said supermarkets had "followed" the crowd rather than taking the lead.
"On GM, they [retailers] followed their customers and took products off the shelves. On other technologies, they could lead and prepare the debate. They have a role in spurring innovation," he told a meeting of the European Retail Round Table in Brussels on Monday (18 January).
Madelin said powerful retailers should try to take a long-term view and ask themselves what their role is in the context of the EU 2020 strategy.
He said it would be futile to encourage innovation in Europe unless retailers were playing their part in engaging with the public. There would, he suggested, be no point in developing new products if the market is closed to selling them.
"The average citizen is not science-averse," he said, but they want to know what the benefits are and how new technologies fit with their values. However, Madelin said big companies are "failing to tell a story consumers can hear".
Nanotechnology on the agenda at new Food Forum
"If you look at the nano debate, after three years of encouraging retail to be more upfront, the industry is still keeping their secrets," he said.
The forthcoming Food Supply Chain Forum – which will begin work by Easter – could look at the role of retail in innovation, Madelin revealed.
"It would be extremely helpful if business leaders engaged beyond their comfort zone. Retailers should ask themselves what they do to help innovation," he said.
However, senior retail industry figures were hesitant to commit themselves to any political agenda, preferring to adopt a neutral stance unless it affects their balance sheets.
Lars Olofsson, CEO of the Carrefour Group, said retailers would not promote any particular technology. He noted that with GM foods, customers were clearly unconvinced that the innovation in question was safe and necessary. Carrefour banned GM ingredients in its own-brand products and other produces followed.
According to Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, the retail industry can play a role in helping to fulfil social policy objectives, but it would be "unrealistic to expect them to do it alone".
"We are very willing to engage and accept our responsibilities. All we ask is that the Commission, the Parliament and the Council give us the right conditions to do so," he said.
The retail sector has been a hive of innovative activity over recent decades, said Dick Boer, executive vice-president of Royal Ahold. "Innovation in the food chain should not be underestimated – let's not forget what has been achieved. Retail is continually trying to do it faster and cheaper and to give consumers lower prices," he said.
Food sold in supermarkets is now safer and fresher than ever before, Boer added.
Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC, the EU consumer group, said it was important not to promote "innovation for the sake of innovation," adding that technological advances must be geared towards societal needs.
She said the public was not science-averse, as evidenced by the fact that consumers snap up new high-tech products every day. The question customers ask themselves with all innovations is what the risks and benefits of a new technology are. This, she said, is the problem with nanotechnology, as more work needs to be done in the area of risk assessment.
Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher, a major DIY retailer, said the industry was willing to step up, take responsibility and play its role in the debate on the future of European retail. He said innovation is something retailers do not get sufficient credit for.
"You don't have to be in a white coat to be innovative," he said, noting that major strides had been made in the areas of data and supply chain management.
In October 2009, the European Commission launched an inquiry into the food supply chain to examine unfair contractual practices imposed on small farmers by major retail chains and other buyers. This was part of a drive to curb future food price increases and ensure farmers receive a fair share of the price of end products.
As part of a broader effort to improve the state of the food business, the EU executive also announced that it would establish a Food Supply Chain Forum. The forum will bring civil society, regulators, and businesses from across the food chain together to discuss the state of the food retail sector.
The debate on applications of nanotechnology has been climbing up the political agenda in recent years, with incoming Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik – a former EU science commissioner – saying recently that existing chemicals legislation was not sufficient to regulate nanomaterials.
There have also been reports that companies selling products which contain nanotechnology are deliberately playing down or hiding this fact, fearing a consumer backlash.