Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

Food industry 'too secretive' over nanotechnology

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Supermarket aisle
Nanotechnology is appearing in an ever-wider range of products

The food industry has been criticised for being secretive about its use of nanotechnology by the UK's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

Lord Krebs, chairman of the inquiry, said the industry "wants to keep a low profile" to avoid controversy.

While there were no clear dangers, he said, there were "gaps in knowledge".

In its report Nanotechnologies and Food, the committee suggests a public register of foods or packaging that make use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is the use of very small particles - measured in the billionths of a metre. At these sizes, particles have novel properties and there is active investigation into how those properties arise.

While nanotechnology is already widely employed - in applications ranging from odour-free socks to novel cancer therapeutic methods - they have long been regarded as a subject requiring further study to ensure their safety.

In the food sector, nanotechnology can be employed to enhance flavour and even to make processed foods healthier by reducing the amount of fat and salt needed in production.

Open standards

Peers said in the report that they found it "regrettable that the food industry was refusing to talk about its work in the area".

We are not clear what is out there in use at the moment
Lord Krebs

They added that it was exactly this behaviour that could prompt public backlash against the use of a technology that could bring many benefits to the public.

Lord Krebs said that the industry was "very reluctant to put its head above the parapet and be open about research on nanotechnology".

"They got their fingers burnt over the use of GM crops and so they want to keep a low profile on this issue. We believe that they should adopt exactly the opposite approach. If you want to build confidence you should be open rather than secretive."

As part of this process, the committee recommends that the Food Standards Agency should have a publicly available register listing food and packaging that use nano-materials.

Julian Hunt, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation, said he was "surprised" by the criticism.

"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," Mr Hunt said.

Woman applying sunscreen (SPL)
Safety concerns have also been raised about nanomaterials in cosmetics

"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, and indeed we are already engaged in such initiatives, both at UK and EU level."

The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, run by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has found that there are currently 84 foods or food-related products that use nanotechnology.

The Food and Drink Federation says that none are currently manufactured in the UK.

'No clear danger'

However, Lord Krebs says he and his colleagues are concerned that because of industry secrecy, it is hard to really know the true extent of the use of nanotechnology in food.

"We are not clear what is out there in use at the moment," he said.

The report says that there is likely to be an "explosive growth" in the use of the technology.

Currently the market is valued at $410m (£260m), but the report estimates it will increase more than ten-fold in the next two years.

The report also says insufficient research has been carried out into the safety of the use of nanotechnology in foods. It urges the government to commission more research on the behaviour of nanomaterials, particularly in the gut.

"There is currently no clear and present danger from nanotechnology," according to Lord Krebs.

"But there are significant gaps in our knowledge for regulators to adequately assess the risk of nanomaterials in food."



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