by Marion Nestle
Jul 8 2010

The news in food nanotechnology

Nanotechnology involves the ability to control matter at the scale of a nanometer—one billionth of a meter. The world market for products that contain nanomaterials is expected to reach $2.6 trillion by 2015.

So says a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO): Nanotechnology: Nanomaterials Are Widely Used in Commerce, but EPA Faces Challenges in Regulating Risk. GAO-10-549, May 25, 2010.

GAO identified a variety of products that currently incorporate nanomaterials already available in commerce…[in] food and agriculture….The extent to which nanomaterials present a risk to human health and the environment depends on a combination of the toxicity of specific nanomaterials and the route and level of exposure to these materials. Although the body of research related to nanomaterials is growing, the current understanding of the risks posed by these materials is limited.

The effects of nanotechnology on the environment are regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which is why this report targets recommendations to EPA.

Shouldn’t some of those recommendations be directed toward FDA, the agency that regulates food safety?  Maybe GAO needs to do another report?

In the meantime, the European Food Safety Authority is preoccupied with issues related to the safety of food nanotechnology.

The risk assessment framework for nanotechnology in Europe – like so much else connected to the technology – appears to be in its infancy but developing at a rapid pace…. Nano knowledge gaps have led some to call for a ban on the use of nanomaterials in food products until their safety has been fully established. One area of concern is whether nanoparticles can migrate from packaging materials into foods.

In seeking to assess nanomaterials, the food safety body repeatedly used phrases such as “specific uncertainties”, “limited knowledge” and…“difficult to characterise, detect and measure” in relation to toxicokinetics and toxicology in food. Likely usage and exposure levels are also largely a mystery.

The European Food Safety Authority says that lack of knowledge means that risk assessment of risk assessments must be done on a “cautious case-by-case approach.”

Last April, the European Parliament’s environment committee said nanotech products should be withdrawn from the market until more is known about their safety.  In June, that committee added that nanotech foods should be assessed for safety before they are approved for use and labeled.

Doesn’t that sound reasonable?  Let’s hope it’s not too late to put such constraints in place, and in the U.S. too.

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  • Bobby

    We don’t really understand the effects of this new whiz-bang super product, so we’re putting it right on to the market! We can call it NEW and Improved and sell more! Who cares what it does in 20-30 years inside human tissue… Not the marketing department! Nosirree.

  • If you have any information in which products these nanomaterials reside, please share. I choose to opt out of many processed foods for similar concerns. But this is the first time I have heard of nanomaterials and would love some more enlightenment.

  • fuzzy

    To imagine that Genetic Modifications and subsequently Nanotechnology are not going to be eventually used for warfare is naive and idealistic to the extreme.

    Both could be saving graces to us, like L5 cities and migration to space could be, or life extension programs, or any of another hundred technological paths which we could and should be taking. Handled improperly by our current crop of corporations which show no evidence of ethics or morality is more like signing our death warrant.

    Population control, and a populace that doesn’t choose to cut off its nose to spite its face are both more important than any amount of regulation in the world. On a planet where the Deep Horizon Gulf spill is treated the way we have in the past 80 days (people, corporations, government all) no amount of regulation is going to save us, and is counterproductive by leading us away from the real issues.

  • Fenton

    Why do they put it on the market and then consider recalling it? The corporate lobbies must be s strong as to leave the consumer powerless. For example, you don’t have to put the fact that your product contains genetically modified ingredients on the label? Or, spices and other things undergoing radiation to expand shelf life?
    W T F
    It’s Orwellian.

    Why can’t we just have plain food, when that’s all we want, when thats what our bodies know and recognize as food? Even microwaving– even pasteurizing– food can alter the molecular structure of items so that the body can not recognize food as food, and does not know what to do with it.