Government scientists have today hit out against the food production industry for its use of nanotechnology, claiming there are “significant gaps in the understanding” which makes their application potentially unsafe.
Nanotechnology refers to the use of tiny particles – billionths of a meter in size – which can affect the structure of composite matter. The food industry is increasingly using the technology to influence flavour of texture. It is also used in a wide range of other applications, including making materials lighter yet stronger, making fibres stain repellent and making surfaces scratch proof.
However, the House of Lords Scientific and Technology Committee has today released a report called Nanotechnologies and Food, based on the findings of a consultation which started in February last year, which says the use of nanotechnology in food may have health implications. The report accuses the food industry of secrecy regarding the technology, alleging that the industry has carried out research but has refused to publish its results. It labelled this “unhelpful” and “exactly the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction it is trying to avert.”
The report recommends government now carries out its own extensive research into the effects of nanotechnologies on the human body and, specifically, the gut. It also says a public register of food items that include nanotechnology should be kept.
Lord Krebs was chair of the inquiry. “The use of nanotechnologies in food and food packaging is likely to grow significantly over the next decade,” he said. “The technologies have the potential to deliver some significant benefits to consumers but it is important that detailed and thorough research into potential health and safety implications in this area is undertaken now to ensure that any possible risks are identified. The Government and Research Councils have a responsibility to ensure that this research takes place and must now take a proactive approach to identifying and funding appropriate research.
“The food industry must also be more open with the public about research it has undertaken in this area and where it sees nanomaterials being used in food production in the future. The lesson from the public reaction to GM foods is that secrecy breeds mistrust, and that openness and transparency are crucial to maintain public confidence.
“The public can expect to have access to information about the food they eat, but it is equally important that that information should be comprehensive and balanced. That is why we consider the right approach to providing information about nanomaterials in the food sector is through a public register, rather than by the blanket labelling of nanomaterials which may not be helpful in assisting consumers to make informed choices.”
The Food and Drink Federation’s director of communications, Julian Hunt, says the organisation is “surprised” by the criticism, “given that nanotechnology is in its infancy in the food and drink sector and that bringing new innovations to market is a long and complex process.”
He added: “Understandably, there are many questions and unknowns about the potential future uses of nanotechnologies in our sector, and there is much work still to be done by scientists, governments and regulators, as well as the food and drink industry.
“We support the report’s recommendation for the formation of an open discussion group to bring more transparency that we know is important to consumers, indeed we are already engaged in such initiatives, both at UK and EU level.”
You can read the Nanotechnologies and Food report by clicking here.