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Use of nano-materials in foods must be openly debated, warn experts

By Nathan Gray , 06-Dec-2011

The use – and regulation – of engineered nano-materials in foods must be openly debated in public, otherwise they risk facing the same fate as genetically modified (GM) foods in consumer perceptions, according to a leading group of UK experts.

Speaking at an open workshop discussion on engineered nano-materials as novel foods, experts from industry and academia were keen to put forward their views on the best way to communicate about nanotechnologies in food to the wider public.

Professor Andrew Chesson, a member of the UK Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP), told FoodNavigator.com the workshop brought to light a number of interesting issues with regard to consumer responses and effective communication.

He said doing nothing in terms of communication to the public is the “least appropriate action”:

“If there is no communication, we’re left with a vacuum. And if there is a vacuum, then that is open for other voices to fill that vacuum,” warned Chesson.

Professor Clare Mills, of Manchester University, UK – also a member of the ACNFP committee – echoed that:

“Consumers have a responsibility to educate themselves and to understand the issues ... but also we must communicate the science and safety assessments of these technologies with them effectively,” she said.

Industry openness

Leading the group discussion on ways to create a more open debate, Chesson argued that although it is understood that industry cannot reveal commercially information on their research activities, there needs to be greater openness from manufacturers on where they want to use nano-materials and the benefits that such applications could bring.

“If food companies don’t share what they are doing, and keep it all behind closed doors, then that starts rumour mill going. And because of that we will get those who are not as familiar with the science putting out scare stories,” he argued.

“Rather than just saying ‘sorry we can’t discuss that because it’s commercially sensitive’, could we not dig a little bit beneath that and question whether there are certain areas within that [nano-research] that we can still talk about: either because they have a bearing on food safety or are of general public interest,” he said.

Focus on benefits

Mills added that while the job of the ACNFP was to solely assess the risks of a novel food – such as an engineered nano-material – there is a growing need to be some form of assessment or explanation of the benefits to the technologies.

Without effective communication of the benefits that nano-technologies can bring to consumers, there is a risk that consumers will see nano in the same light as GM, said Mills,who argues the benefits of any new technology introduced into food must be “clearly demonstrated” before consumers will ‘get on board.’

“There needs to be good communication explaining the issues,” she said, noting that while this may not be a role for any particular regulatory board or advisory committee, an overall approach to communicating the benefits – and not just assessing the risks – of nanotechnologies could be beneficial.