Food nanotechnology - how the industry is blowing it

(Nanowerk Spotlight) The food industry is excited about the potential of nanotechnology. Food companies are very much involved in exploring and implementing nanotechnology applications in food processing, packaging and even growing - but you don't hear about it anymore. At least not from the companies.
Large industrial food companies, no stranger to big and expensive media campaigns, have buried the subject of nanotechnology in their public relations graveyard. Take Kraft Foods for example. While it took the industry’s nanotechnology lead when it established the Nanotek Consortium in 2000, it has since pulled back completely on the PR front. The Nanotek Consortium even was renamed the 'Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies' (INEST), was for a time sponsored by Altria, and its ingle webpage has since disappeared as well.. Doing our regular check on the websites of large food companies (Altria (Kraft Foods), Associated British Foods, Cadbury Schweppes, General Mills, Group Danone, H.J. Heinz, Nestlé, Kellogg) we again found not a single reference to 'nanotechnology' or even 'nano'. The same is true for large food industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association (GMA/FPA), which represents the world's leading food, beverage and consumer products companies.
Faced with a complete nanotechnology communications blackout from the manufacturers, it is left to activist groups like Friends of the Earth to frame the discussion. These groups, together with a few public efforts in Europe (such as the European Food Safety Authority addressing nanotechnology food safety) are trying to figure out what the food industry is up to and if there might be any risks involved that we should know about (there also is an older report from PEN – Nanotechnology in Agriculture and Food – but this information probably is no longer up to date).
These organizations argue that a lack of evidence of harm is not the same as reasonable certainty of safety, which is what food companies must demonstrate to food regulating bodies such as the FDA in the U.S. before introducing a new food additive. With regard to the FDA, though, it seems that government organizations are somewhat challenged with regard to assessing nanotechnologies.
While forward-looking companies are very open about what they are doing with nanotechnologies, even inviting public scrutiny (see: Nanotechnology risk framework by Environmental Defense and DuPont or Stakeholders applaud measure to develop nanotechnology EHS research roadmap), the entire industrial food sector is so scared of public scrutiny of their nanotechnology activities that they have stopped communicating about it at all. By leaving it to activist groups to spread the word about their nanotechnology activities, these companies run a huge risk of the public discussion about their nanotech products being framed by forces that usually are very critical, outspoken, and not necessarily balanced when it comes to perceived and potential risks.
Rather than treating safety-conscious consumers as mature grown-ups who want to hear both sides of the story and then come to an informed opinion, the food companies' behavior is fueling the arguments of critics who think the industry is hiding something.
The problem is that there is no transparency whatsoever about the use of nanotechnology in the food industry. It seems that the key players are worried that food nanotechnology will suffer the same fate as genetic engineering, which has come to be fiercely opposed, especially in Europe.
What is even more puzzling about the food industry's behavior is that the 'nanotechnology' used in food products and processes today doesn't sound very scary. It's mostly nanoemulsions and nanoscale versions of commonly used ingredients and materials (although there has been some controversy recently about the use of nanoparticulate silver in antimicrobial applications).
A recent report by Friends of the Earth titled "Out of the Laboratory and on to our Plates - Nanotechnology in Food & Agriculture" provides a good, current overview of nanotechnology's role in the food industry. While we leave it to you to judge the group's take on the industry, the perceived risks, and their recommendations, we think the report is a good source of nanotechnology examples of what is already happening in food production and what we can expect coming to our dinner tables soon.
The report, which defines the term ‘nanofood’ as food which has been cultivated, produced, processed or packaged using nanotechnology techniques or tools, or to which manufactured nanomaterials have been added, lists some 100 cases of nanotechnology (mostly in the form of added nanoparticles) used in food processing, food packaging and in agriculture. Here are some examples:
nanotechnology applications in food
Examples of the current use of nanomaterials in agriculture, foods and food packaging (Image: Friends of the Earth)
A lot of food products on supermarket shelves already undergo various degrees of (non-nanotechnology) processing that affect their biological and biochemical makeup and in many cases lead to what appears to be entirely artificial 'food' (read "Twinkie, Deconstructed" to get the idea). As nanotechnology developments in the fields of biology and biochemistry progress, expect more and more of it influencing the food industry and more complex nanotechnology applications to appear. For instance, active research is going on to create 'interactive foods' such as 'programmable' wine.
There also is a potential for using more controversial materials: for example, carbon nanotubes are being explored as gelation and viscosifying agents and various kinds of fibers in packaging materials.
The food industry's practically non-existing communication is a far cry from what is needed to create public confidence in their existing and coming range of nanotechnology enhanced food products and applications. Instead of seeking a public dialogue, food companies seem to have so little confidence in their own technology (or communication skills; or reputation) that they prefer to go into hiding.
Why not come out guns blazing and educate the public about the exciting opportunties for nanotechnologies in the food sector? Why not demonstrate that the risk aspects of the technology are being thoroughly investigated? (Are they?) Why invite the cliché of 'bad corporate citizens' – companies that keep information from the public and hide the risky aspects of what they are doing; deny there is a risk at all; spend extraordinary amounts of money on lobbyists to escape stringent regulations; and only face a problem and deal with it after it happened and there is absolutely no other way of wiggling out (tobacco companies anyone?).
If you are interested in some other background stories, we have several food related articles here on the Nanowerk site:
  • Nanotechnology food coming to a fridge near you
  • The promises of food nanotechnology
  • Food nanotechnology and public acceptance
  • Intelligent inks - now you see them, now you don't
  • Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
    Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
    Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
    Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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