Manufacturers risk new nanotechnology-based food products being rejected in a similar way to genetically modified (GM) foods, unless they start engaging with consumers over their perceptions of the risks involved, a new Food Standards Agency (FSA) commissioned study has warned.
At a briefing in London yesterday, the FSA released the results of a study into consumer perceptions about nanotechnology, which found that ignorance of the issues had led to consumer confusion about the risks and benefits involved.
The study was conducted by research agency TNS-BMRB and was commissioned following publication of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report into nanotechnology last year, chaired by Sir John Krebs.
A spokesman for TNS-BMRB said consumer concerns are not allayed by the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a nanoparticle: issues include size , engineered versus naturally occurring particles, and 'soft' (soluble or digestible) or 'hard' (insoluble) particles.
"Consumer lack of knowledge generates scepticism – this goes all the way back to pasteurisation,” said the FSA’s chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge. “They need to perceive the benefits, similar to microwaves, where the advantages outweighed the potential risks."
Dr Sandy Lawrie, secretary of the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises the FSA, added: "There is a suspicion by consumers that the industry has lots going on behind closed doors, when in actuality little is."
The study found underlying concerns about nanotechnology revolved around long-term health and environment impacts, product cost increases and a lack of transparency of information from the industry.
In response to the study's publication, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser, Which? said: "If consumers are to have confidence in the use of nanotechnology in food, we need a much more pro-active response from the government and the food industry. This research shows yet again that consumers want greater transparency about what is going on. Research and regulatory gaps need to be urgently addressed and people need to be given meaningful labelling and information about the use of nanoingredients in food."
Food use worry
Consumers were less concerned about the use of nano-technology in packaging, believing new technology would be more readily used in packaging and that nanoparticles would not be directly ingested. But they were worried over its use directly in foods.
The TNS-BMRB spokesman said that reformulation was the most positively accepted use of nanotechnology in food, with consumers seeing the benefits of a healthier diet. But they felt that it could potentially undermine personal responsibility for people’s diets and reduce inhibitions about eating indulgent foods.
Use of nanomaterials to improve taste or texture received the least consumer support. This was viewed as trivial and unnecessary, especially considering the uncertainty about the risks of nanotechnology, and notwithstanding views that ‘light’ products tended to be less tasty than full-fat versions and that making reductions in fat, salt and sugar was good.
Novel foods regulation
Despite understanding that the use of ‘hard’ nanoparticles presented the most uncertainty in terms of risk – due to a lack of understanding about where they go in the body or the effects of long-term build up – the use of nanotechnology in packaging, to prevent waste or detect food spoilage, was viewed positively, as long as the environmental impact and consumer cost was considered.
Wadge said It was unclear whether consumer views will have any influence over legislation regulating the use of nanotechnology , or what the timeframe for any legislation would be, following the collapse of EU talks over novel foods regulations.
Nevertheless, the TNS-BMRB spokesman said it would be down to manufacturers to inform consumers about the benefits and risks of nano-technology and to correct misconceptions over their use.
Consumers showed a desire for an easily understandable label to be placed on foods containing nano-ingredients, but this would be more of a matter for Brussels to decide, Wadge added.