Scientists urge transparency in nanotech safety testing

By staff reporter

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food, Nanotechnology

The UK's Royal Society has called for companies developing products
containing nanoparticles to disclose how they are tested for
safety.

The call comes as more and more food companies are examining the technology, either to develop smart packaging or functional foods. The problem they face is consumer resistance due to fears over the uncertain nature of the new technology. Many fear the technology could act on indeterminable ways on their health or the environment.

Professor Ann Dowling, chair of a Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report into nanotechnologies, said that increased transparency would also help stimulate collaboration between industrial researchers and academic scientists to develop consistent and agreed methods of testing.

She also called for international agreements and cooperation to identify and carry out the research needed to underpin regulation.

"Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger materials of the same substance and it is these properties that many manufacturers seek to take advantage of,"​ Dowling stated in a report. "But these novel properties also mean that some nanoparticles may need to be subject to specific testing. And in order that the public can have confidence in these products the industry should publish details of their testing procedures."

Earlier this year the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in the US released a nanotech database listing about fifteen food food and drink items among the 212 products using the techhnology. Among them are a canola oil product, a cocoa drink and a chocolate gum. The database is the first publicly accessible online inventory of nanotechnology consumer products.

However the relatively low number of food and drink products indicates that processors are taking a cautious dip in the technology in terms of developing new products.

Most uses of nanotechnology in the food and drink industries will remain "below the waterline" -- applications that make an economic difference for producers, packagers and retailers, but that consumers don't really notice, according to a US research analyst.

Lux Research senior analyst Mark Bünger, one of the authors of a new report into the technology, says the food and drink industry will benefit through relatively mundane improvements in food cost, packaging, and safety, rather than from direct product applications.

The "mundane" uses include antimicrobial sensors and coatings, printable RFID tags, and the like. At the same time, industry is studying more "high-profile" product enhancements, such as "tunable" ingredients in functional foods, and other applications that are ingested.

For the most part he believes the real benefits will come in using nanoparticulate conducting inks to create smart packages, and other innovations that food technologists care a lot about but consumers never see.

"In a purely economic sense, the splashy products are less important than the hidden ones - they are low-volume stunts that that appeal to a strongly-motivated niche," Bünger told FoodProductionDaily.com in an interview. "Nanotech in food has a lot of appeal to the kind of people who drink Red Bull for breakfast, but clearly not mainstream consumers."

By comparison the commercialization of nanotechnology continues to` gain speed worldwide in many industries, according to a new reference report released this week by Lux Research.

Emerging nanotechnology was incorporated into $32 billion in manufactured goods in 2005 - more than double the previous year, Lux Research found. Global research and development spending on the field reached $9.6bn, up 10 per cent from 2004 the company stated in the fourth edition of its Nanotech Report.

For the food and drink industry anything "nano" that involves food contact, to say nothing of actual ingestion, will be subject to a lot of scrutiny for at least the next three years, as regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration get preliminary studies done and rules written.

"What happens after that is impossible to say - it depends on how well companies actually engineer nanomaterials to be safe, how well they communicate with the public as crises inevitably arise, and how much better the new products actually perform compared to non-nano alternatives,"​ Bünger said.

He noted that currently there is more risk than reward in a manufacturer hyping up the fact that they are producing some kind of nanofood for general consumption.

"If you look at the broadest trends in food overall, they are towards more natural ingredients, organics, and such,"​ he said. "There is certainly a smaller segment going for high-tech, functional foods as well, and nanotech in food will appeal to these consumers. Few people complain when you create high-tech, high-margin consumables for partiers, fitness nuts, and other edge-seekers. It's when you put something nano in everyone's milk that you invite great scrutiny with little potential payoff."

The less risker applications, and ones that offer a greater reward, is in the incremental improvements in packaging, food safety, agribusiness, and other similar applications. Nanotech has great potential to really restrict the spread of foodborne disease, reduce the amount of pesticide on crops and antibiotics in livestock and help with supply-chain planning, Bünger believes.

Safety concerns and a need for regulation before products are introduced are some of the constraints that could hold he industry back from exploiting the technology with more gusto.

"There are real risks and perceived risks,"​ he said. "Even in nanofoods, the perceived risks are much larger than the actual risks. Companies need to do their labwork and be completely transparent with the results - that's the only way to work."

He noted that consumers are extremely wary of any junk that goes into food these days. Natural ingredients like sugar and fat are under fire.

"If you are introducing something perceived as new or risky - which nanofood clearly is -- it had better be for a product that appeals to risk-takers, or that replaces something consumers have already decided to cut out of their diets,"​ he said. "As a plausible but purely hypothetical example, if sugar as a nanoparticulate powder could deliver the same taste at much lower mass than sugar in visible crystals, I think you'd have a hit product."

In 2004 the Royal Society, in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering, published the study concluding that nanotechnology posed no new risks, but warning about the potential effects of free nanoparticles on health and the environment.

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide

The Woodrow Wilson International Center inventory can be accessed online at www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts​.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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