andrew schneider investigates

March 25, 2009

The use of nanotechnology in food and packaging soars enormously, but Europe beats the U.S. when it comes to demanding safety in using the technology.

Filed under: Nanotechnology,Public health legislation — Andrew Schneider @ 11:39

Food scientists that I’ve interviewed recently say that every major manufacturer of food products in the U.S. has either its own in-house team evaluating the use of nanotechnology or has contracted with outside experts for the knowledge.

The race is on to create these manmade nanoparticles – the size of atoms and molecules – and modify them to enhance the safety, taste, color, texture, nutritional value and shelf life of food.

Many food scientists are working on nanoparticles that will kill microbes that spoil or taint food, and I’m told that at least three labs in Europe and Japan are reportedly pursuing similar technology to signal the presence of salmonella, listeria and even E.coli.

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My acquaintances in the Food and Drug Administration and on various Congressional committees say the government is doing little or nothing to ensure the safety of this technology.

I was at a conference two years ago when Mitchell Cheeseman, then-deputy director of FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety, said the agency needed help in identifying potential safety concerns from nanotech food additives and dietary supplements. One researcher in the food additive office told me today “not much has happened because the nanotech wheel is not squeaking.”

The rest of the world appears to be taking it seriously.

For instance, food products using nanotechnology will not be permitted for sale in Ireland until the risks to consumers is better known, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently told our FDA.

Just this week, the European Parliament called for caution to be used before food being produced using nanotechnology processes marketed.

According to a statement from the European Parliament, the European Food Safety Authority has been ordered to ensure the safety of all food produced with nanotechnology processes, and “specific risk assessments” must be approved and completed before the products can be sold.

In addition, the organization ordered labeling instructions that I won’t live long enough to see in the U.S.

They require that: “all ingredients present in the form of nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of the ingredients shall be followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets.”

On the other side of the world, Australian food safety activists call for increasing “scant regulations governing the use of potentially harmful nanotechnology in food and food packaging,” reported the Australian Associated Press.

A new report from the consumer group “Choice,” quoted  by the Australian news agency, says an estimated 150 to 600 nanofoods and 400 to 500-nanofood packaging applications are in use around the world.

Nanotechnology involves structures as small as molecules, 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, which can have new and unexpected properties because their small size brings quantum effects into play and their larger relative surface area makes them more reactive.

Choice said there is also a lack of research into how nanoparticles in food react once inside the human body.

The government agency Food Standards Australia New Zealand does not require manufactured nanoparticles to be specifically labeled, the food safety group said.

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