Nanotechnology use in food creates a stir

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 30th March 2009

The use of nanotechnology in food could lead to food tasting and looking better, but knowledge regarding any possible negative health affect is scarce.

Leading Australian consumer group Choice believes nanotechnology is already used in around 800 non-food products, with food manufacturers now exploring its potential behind closed doors.

“(There are) invisible sunscreens, where there’s a nano-scale titanium dioxide, which gives transparent protection from UV,” Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn told ABC radio on Saturday. “There’s also shirts that don’t actually stain because they’ve copied the nano-structure of Lotus leaves to create water repellent surfaces.”

Mr Zinn added that there was now a lot of work being carried out in the food sector to capitalise on the new technology.

“Developing an ice cream which has lower fat content but has the same fatty texture and flavour,” was one of the current tests being undertaken, he noted. “Food packaging can keep food fresher if you’re using nano-materials. There’s a lot of applications; there’s a lot of work going on.”

Choice is, however, concerned that foods made using nanotechnology could enter the food system without informing the public.

“Under our current food code there’s no requirement for any of this to be specifically labelled the use of nano-particles,” Mr Zinn advised. “They’re so small they can actually enter cells and enter parts of the body, which might not routinely happen with normal food stuffs. And that’s why want to see a regime with Food Standards Australia New Zealand, where there is going to be much greater safety assessments carried out.”

The Australian Office of Nanotechnology, which oversees FSANZ and develops nanotechnology policy, is confident in the current regulations Australia has in place.

“A major report just commissioned by the Australian Government by Monash University found that right across the board the regulatory systems in Australia are sufficient to cover most things,” Craig Cormick from the Australian Office of Nanotechnology said. “However, they did point to some areas where we have to do a lot more work to make sure we keep on top of these things.”

Associate Professor Thomas Faunce, from Australian National University’s Medical School, reported some doubts about the Monash University report.

“All the research at the moment tends to indicate nanoparticles have unusual toxicities related to size and shape,” he told ABC radio. “In this sort of climate it’s much better if regulatory authorities apply the precautionary principle and start developing nano-specific regulatory structures. If we don’t we’re going to have a catastrophe-driven approach to regulation, where we wait for a major public health crisis to arise because of nanoparticles causing toxicity in people.”

The European Food Safety Authority recently carried out an assessment into nanotechnology and its impact on health, concluding that products needed to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Given current data limitations and a lack of validated test methodologies, risk assessment of specific nano products remained very difficult and subject to a high degree of uncertainty, they reported.

The European Parliament has since passed amendments to proposed reforms of the EU’s novel food regulation, which will force food manufacturers to state if their products contain nanoparticles. The legislation is likely to be in effect before the end of the year.

Australia’s food regulatory body, FSANZ, is currently reviewing its requirements for foods using nanotechnology.

All new products containing nanoparticles will be required to undergo a safety assessment by FSANZ and may need to have specific labelling requirements, the Australian Food and Grocery Council noted last week.

“…Each technology must be assessed carefully by food regulators to ensure its safety and to determine any specific labelling requirements,” AFGC Chief Executive Kate Carnell said. “We are not aware of nanotechnology currently being used in Australian food and grocery manufactured products, but clearly the industry is considering what opportunities may exist.”

“In the end the food industry will listen to its consumers, and ensure products provided meet all their needs. They will be safe and they will be labelled so consumers can make informed choices,” Ms Carnell concluded.