Dr Mike Knowles, Coca-Cola’s global scientific and regulatory affairs vice president, told FoodProductionDaily.com that the industry was being as open as it could be and that the censure levelled at the sector by the UK Parliament last year was misguided.
His comments came in the aftermath of a pan-European stakeholder dialogue event on the potential applications of nanotechnology, hosted by the trade association FoodDrinkEurope.
Dr Knowles, who chairs the group’s nanotech committee, said consumer distrust in Europe over nanotech and current economic woes were combining to curb growth of the technology – not just in the region but across the globe.
Significant knowledge gaps about the technology also meant that food companies were reluctant to gamble on using nanotechnology for fear of damaging valuable brands.
In January 2010, a report from the House of Lords, the upper parliamentary house in the UK, said the food industry’s reluctance to discuss nano advances risked triggering a public backlash against the technology similarly to that which has so blighted the acceptance of genetically modified food.
Lord Krebs, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, scolded the sector over its “reluctance to put its head above the parapet and declare openly what kind of research was going on to develop nanotechnology in food”. The report backed the introduction of a public register on the nano-research to assuage consumer anxiety.
But Dr Knowles rejected the criticisms and said it was a failure of the committee to grasp basic commercial realities.
“Nobody can stay in business if they disclose their commercial secrets to their competitors. We are doing as much as we can,” he said. “The House of Lords did not understand the arguments. I was disappointed with that aspect of the report. We need to explain the development of the technology and address concerns of non-governmental organisation (NGOs) and consumers. We will continue to engage with the public as consumer knowledge is vital if people are to embrace the technology.”
The session addressed the safety issue regarding technology – stressing that in Europe all nanomaterials have to be approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in line with its recently issued procedure prior to being incorporated into food and packaging.
“Not only does this ensure safety but it also promotes openness. As soon as companies submit a dossier for approval it becomes public,” said Dr Knowles.
Slow pace of development – economic hiccup
The meeting held in Brussels last week also explored the factors behind the slow rate of development in nanotechnology.
Consumer attitudes in Europe, recession and knowledge gaps were all cited as important factors.
“The industry is still asking if consumers will accept nanotechnology,” said Dr Knowles. “There are different attitudes to nanomaterials in Japan and the US – where consumers are more accepting of technology. Europe is more cautious and what happens in the Eurozone affects other regions."
He also highlighted the turbulent economic climate over the past few years as a “hiccup in development”.
“People are wary about introducing more expensive packaging and food during the current economic situation. Everyone is looking at where they can reduce costs,” said Dr Knowles.
This, combined with the long and costly innovation cycle for nano products, were major reasons why so few products using nanomaterials had so far been brought to market.
Taking packaging as an example, he said that titanium nitride has been granted approval for use in PET bottles.
“Its benefit is that it reduces the heat needed to blow the bottles by 20% and, as a consequence, significantly improves the quality of recycled PET (rPET), “ added Dr Knowles. “I am sure people are working on this but innovation like this is not cheap. I don’t know of anyone who is near to market on this.”