Nanotechnology is the use of substances on a very small scale and the market could potentially be worth €750bn to €2,000bn by 2015, according to the European Commission.
Now EFSA’s Scientific Committee (SC) has concluded that although established international approaches to risk assessment could be applied to engineered nano materials (ENM), it would be necessary to assess each case individually.
Prof Vittorio Silano, chair of the SC, also said that “given current data gaps and limitations in a number of cases, it may be very difficult to provide fully satisfactory conclusions”.
EFSA added that these data limitations and a lack of validated test methodologies could also make risk assessment of specific nano products “subject to a high degree of uncertainty”.
The SC recommends that additional research and investigation is needed to address these issues, including investigating the interaction and stability of ENMs in food and feed, in the gastro-intestinal tract and in biological tissues.
It also recommends developing and validating routine methods to detect, characterise and quantify ENMs in food contact materials, food and feed, and to assess toxicity.
An EFSA spokesman told FoodNavigator.com "We were asked to look at this issue by the Commission.
“EFSA is saying that the approaches to risk assessment used in other areas can theoretically be applied to nano, but we would need to look at each case one-by-one, in detail.”
This appears to indicate a more cautious approach compared to, for example, its assessment of flavouring where EFSA is evaluating 2,800 substances. Rather than looking at them individually though, they are put into groups according to their structure and a representative substance is looked at in detail.
Nanotechnology has potential in a variety of industries but possible uses in food production include targeted delivery of nutrients and in the food packaging industry, wafer-thin nano coatings of aluminium, for example.
A recent report from Switzerland’s Centre for Technology Assessment called for existing legislation on foods and chemicals to be adapted to meet the demands of nanotechnology, saying that Europe-wide regulation was required in relation to nano-particles in packaging and products.
The Commission is not obliged to take EFSA’s scientific opinion into account when legislating.
However, Silano said: “This issue will remain a priority for EFSA’s Scientific Committee. We are establishing a working group of experts to be kept informed of any emerging scientific and other data that will help us deliver the best possible scientific opinions based on the most up-to-date evidence available.”
The EFSA spokesman said it has“already very slowly started adopting a case-by-case approach”.
Two examples are silver hydrosol, which can be used in food supplements and titanium nitride, a food contact material.
EFSA’s panel on food additives and nutrient sources concluded that it did not have enough data to be able to assess the safety of silver nanoparticles in silver hydrosol.
However, the panel on food contact materials concluded that a specific use of titanium nitride nanoparticles in a material used to make plastic drinks bottles did not give rise to toxicological concern.