UK food industry surprised by nanotechnology criticism

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 11th January 2010

The food sector in the UK has come in for criticism from a research committee for a lack of transparency when it comes to nanotechnology.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee said that the food industry had “(failed) to be transparent about its research into the uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials”, a claim denied by the sector.

In their report, Nanotechnologies and Food, the Committee noted that transparency and honesty are key components for ensuring public trust in both food safety and scientific developments, and argued that the current approach of food companies in not publishing or discussing details of its research in this area is “unhelpful”.

The Committee added that the food industry had good reason to be sensitive around the issue, but was concerned that they were being more secretive than cautious.

Nanotechnology is a controversial issue that, like genetically-modified food, polarises opinion. It involves reducing common materials to the size of microscopic particles, allowing the acquisition of unusual properties.

In the case of nanotechnology the main argument is one of health – with manufacturers looking to find ways to reduce salt, fat or sugar levels or enhance the nutritional profile without impacting on taste. Detractors, however, question the possible health impact, concerned that it may have adverse affects on the human body – a point raised  by the researchers.

“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 researchers advised. “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.”

Lord Krebs, who chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Nanotechnologies and Food, said that growth of nanotechnology was set to soar and authorities needed to be prepared for such a circumstance.

“The use of nanotechnologies in food and food packaging is likely to grow significantly over the next decade,” he stated. “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 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 Food and Drink Federation – the leading representative of food and beverage manufacturers in the UK – believes that the criticism is unjustified.

“Given that nanotechnology is in its infancy in the food and drink sector and that bringing new innovations to market is a long and complex process, we are surprised that the report seems to criticise the food industry for an apparent reluctance to communicate extensively on this subject,” Julian Hunt, FDF’s Director of Communications, said. “Understandably, there are many questions and unknowns about the potential future uses of nanotechnologies in our sector, and there is much work still to be done by scientists, governments and regulators, as well as the food and drink industry.

“We support the report’s recommendation for the formation of an open discussion group to bring more transparency that we know is important to consumers, indeed we are already engaged in such initiatives, both at UK and EU level.”