House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Report: Nanotechnologies in the Food Sector
Institute of Nanotechnology Comments
The UK’s House of Lords Science and Technology Committee today published the findings of their 2009 inquiry into the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector.
This article written by Dr Mark Morrison of the IoN describes and comments on the findings.
Based on written and oral evidence collected from a number of stakeholders within the UK and other countries (including from the Institute of Nanotechnology), the report ‘Nanotechnologies and Food’ recognises some of the potential benefits that nanotechnologies could bring to food production, processing and packaging. While it finds no evidence of nanomaterials in foodstuffs presenting a risk to consumer safety and no known foodstuffs available on the UK market containing nanomaterials, it is critical of the food industry for not publicising its R&D programmes, and the UK Government for failing to adequately fund research in health and safety issues.
It makes the following recommendations:
- greater transparency from industry regarding its use of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in food R&D;
- Government and Research Councils to adequately fund research into potential health and safety risks arising from the use of nanomaterials in the food sector (in particular that research is commissioned which focuses specifically on the behaviour of nanomaterials within the body and particularly the gut);
- creation of a public register of foodstuffs and food packaging that contains nanomaterials, to be maintained by the Food Standards Authority;
- specific mention of nanomaterials in food legislation, and that the UK Government work with other EU nations to clarify what is meant by the phrase “properties that are characteristic to the nanoscale” in the draft definition proposed for the revised Novel Foods Regulation, by the inclusion in legislation of a more detailed list of what these properties comprise;
- tighter controls on imported foodstuffs and dietary supplements (particularly those available over the web), including new testing regimes.
However, it does not recommend labelling for all foodstuffs containing nanomaterials, a path advocated by a number of pressure groups and NGOs.
In the wider European context, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published its findings on nanotechnology in food in March 2009 . This report led to a request from the European Parliament to the Commission on amendments in regulatory provision for foods including: introduction of a specific definition of nanomaterials, labelling, stricter requirements for risk assessment of products containing nanomaterials.
Commenting on the House of Lords report, Lord Krebs, who chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Nanotechnologies and Food, said: “The use of nanotechnologies in food and food packaging is likely to grow significantly over the next decade. 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 Institute of Nanotechnology (IoN) was one of several contributors to the evidence gathering performed by the select committee and broadly agrees with the findings of the report, however it notes that funding for environment, health, and safety research should not be limited to food, and any initiative by the UK government should work synergistically with those of other nations to provide a truly international effort.
Commenting on the report, the Institute’s CEO, Dr Mark Morrison, said: ‘Access to information and transparency regarding product development is a must for the future success of any technology, to ensure that developments meet consumer needs and assuage any consumer concerns. The Institute of Nanotechnology has worked closely with industry, academia and government for the responsible development of nanotechnology in all industrial sectors, including hosting and participating in public debates on the potential benefits and risks on nanotechnology-enabled applications. With respect to the food sector, it is important to remember that processed food makes up a substantial portion of the daily diet in developed countries. New technology developments that improve the quality, safety and nutritional value of such foodstuffs should be welcomed, with the caveat that these must be safe for the consumer and the environment.’
The report can be downloaded from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee website.
For more information on nanotechnology applications in the agrifood sector please see reports written by IoN members of staff from two EU projects it coordinates:
The Potential Risks Arising from Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies on Food and Feed Safety, Scientific Opinion of the Scientific Committee, The EFSA Journal (2009) 958, 1-39 (www.efsa.europa.eu/EFSA/efsa_locale-1178620753812_1211902361968.htm)
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