EFSA opens the floor on nanotechnology

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is up for consideration by EFSA's science brains,
but certain crucial steps in introducing the technology to the
market - including a clear definition of the term - must be taken
before it came be used successfully and safely, said panellists at
a debate last week.

The discussion, entitled Nanotechnology in Food​, took place as part of EFSA's fifth anniversary Scientific Forum in Brussels last week. The authority has been asked by the European Commission to provide and opinion on nanotechnology. Tony Hardy of Central Science Laboratory in the UK, who chaired the discussion, said that the idea of the debate was to hear what opinions are our there and to record them. What is nanotechnology? ​Crucially, the panellists discussed what exactly should be considered as nanotechnology - and what not. In broad terms, nanotechnology is said to refer to an atomic or molecular scale of between one and 100 nanometres (nm). ​But as Dr Frans Kampers, programme manager bio-nanotechnology at Wageningen University, The Netherlands, pointed out, most nanoparticles in food are actually of natural origin. ​This beggars the question as to whether there is a food that isn't nano - and indeed, whether nanotechnology should be deemed existing or new. ​He believes the distinction between what is nanotech and what is not should be determined by whether it is man made - that is, "man-made components modified at a molecular or super-molecule scale".​ There was also discussion about what percentage of a food should be at nano-level for it to be defined as such: 5, 10 or 100 per cent. What are its uses? ​Values that have been placed on the nanotechnology industry, even as it is in its infancy, range from US$410m to $7bn. According to one estimate, the market could be worth as much as $20bn by 2020. At present the main uses are said to be in food packaging and barrier materials, with some applications in nutraceutical delivery, said Philippe Martin of the European Commission's Directorate General for Health & Consumer Protection. For instance, Nutralease and Aquanova have both developed nanotechnology solutions for stabilising and solubilising insoluble ingredients. Other uses under investigation include processing - such as programming of foods to release flavour at a particular time, or nutrients in a certain part of the body where they can have an effect. It could also have a role in cultivation, such as improving seed and the efficacy of pesticides; for new packaging solutions - like glass but lighter and unbreakable); and to monitor, trace and interrogate, in systems such as RFID tracking and e-nose. What are the concerns? ​The main concerns about nanotechnology are around absorption and reaction - and the possibility of nanoparticles crossing natural barriers and membranes. In certain conditions, they could move into the brain. This would be a bad effect it if the nano-material were toxic - but good if the technology were used in a drug that was intended to have an effect in the brain. Nanoparticles are more reactive that larger-scale particles, since they have a larger surface area by volume. But safety is not a given just because a substance is inert at macro scale, since reactivity can vary depending on particle size. For instance gold, at a macro scale and used in jewellery, is inert. However at a nano level it takes on a red or a blue colour (depending on the size of the particles) and has catalytic properties. When the particles are 6nm or above, they become inert one again. This is problematic as nanotech innovators have a tendency to work with materials that have already been approved under novel foods legislation. In fact, however, any technology changes mean that that a substance should be resubmitted for novel foods approval before being placed on the market. ​But Kathy Jo Wetter of action group ETC said her organisation called for a moriatum on nanotechnology five years ago. She said it was "not the intention to rain on the parade of consumer products",​ but hundreds of products are coming to the market, in the absence of public debate and presence of only a handful of studies, some of which suggest adverse effects. Moreover, there are no regulations or labelling requirements to allow consumers to make an informed choice at present. Moreover, millions of dollars are being spent on R&D in the field of nanotechnology, but only a fraction of this is dedicated to safety. "One to four per cent of US government funding of nanotechnology goes to safety," she said, adding that it is a problem governments and industry fail to encourage public debate, transparency and rigorous published research on a new technology. Kampers, however, played down the risk. "I believe the major risk would be on non-organic, non-biodegradable particles, for which there is little use in food,"​ he said. Will the public buy it? ​Dr Kampers said he is convinced nanotechnology will bring big benefits to individuals and mankind as a whole - but much depends on the perceived risks. An obvious comparison in introducing a new technology to the market is with genetically modified organisms (GMO), which remain highly controversial in Europe, even over a decade since the issue first raised its head. There are some lessons that can be learned from GMOs in relation to public attitudes - and transparency is key to instilling trust in the controllers. Wetter stressed that trust assumes consumer communication. Moreover, the emotional aspect of introducing a new technology that involves 'changing nature' should not be ignored, since emotions are just as valid a part of the reasoning process as science. But it is also a matter of perceived risk versus perceived benefit. For instance, new technologies in drug delivery tend to be well-received. But Donald Bruce of ethical consultancy Edinethics pointed out that food is a trickier issue. Consumers are likely to asked whether they actually need the benefits claimed by producers. For instance, when it comes to the functional benefits of a nanotechnology food, the big question is whether or not the same benefits would be available from anywhere else. Other key questions are whether we really know enough about what we are doing; and how far should the risk regulators be holding back before the science catches up with the technology? The European Commission has issued a mandate for a complete evaluation of nanotechnology by 31 March 2008 but, because of the vast range of existing nanomaterials with differing properties and safety profiles, EFSA has said it will not be able to meet this deadline. Instead, it has proposed to issue an initial scientific opinion by next summer, and plans to set up a working group of 10 to 15 member state scientific experts to build on existing opinions of scientific advisory bodies and third countries.

Related topics: Market Trends, Food labelling

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