Industry ‘too secretive’ about nanotech research

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Nanotechnology Food

Food manufacturers’ reluctance to disclose what research they are carrying out on products using nanotechnology risks a public backlash similar to that which occurred against genetically modified (GM) foods, The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has warned.

In its report Nanotechnologies and Food​, published today, the Committee is highly critical of the food industry for failing to be transparent about its research into the uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials.

It noted that transparency is key for ensuring public trust in both food safety and scientific developments, and argued that although there is no evidence that the use of nanotechnologies in food currently presents a threat to consumer safety, food companies’ failure to publish or discuss details of their research is likely to undermine public confidence in the technology.

Chairman of the Committee Lord Krebs said: "The food industry was very reluctant to put its head above the parapet and declare openly what kind of research was going on to develop the use of nanotechnologies in food. Part of the reason for that is the food industry got its fingers burned over the last round of novel technology, namely GM technology. So their attitude is to keep a very low profile and not to talk too loudly about what they may or may not be doing.”

He added: “We already know from the scientists the kinds of things that might be in the pipeline: mayonnaise with a much lower fat content or ice cream with a much lower fat content. And I think the food industry could talk in general terms about the kinds of products that might be developed without being too specific and without giving away the intellectual property of their particular manufacturing technique.”

Rather than seeking a legal requirement for the labelling of foods containing nanoparticles in the EU – similar to that required for foods containing genetically modified organisms – the Committee wants the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to supervise a publicly available online register of food and food packaging containing nanomaterials in products that are already on the market. “It’s not clear what value labelling would be to the consumer,” ​said Krebs.

"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,” ​he added. “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."

Labelled by law?

But this view is unlikely to find favour with consumer groups and may prove to be at odds with the outcome of the European Commission’s consultation on nanotechnologies, which ends on February 19. This may well call for labelling to be required by law.

However, in addition to a voluntary publicly available register, the Committee also wants another mandatory confidential database of all research on nanotechnology in the UK to be created and managed by the FSA to inform risk assessment. This second list would be confidential to protect companies’ commercial interests, said Committee chairman, Lord Krebs.

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser for consumer group Which? welcomed these proposals: “A mandatory reporting scheme will force the food industry to be up front about the use of these technologies while a register of foods and packaging containing nanomaterials will help people make informed choices about the food they are putting in their mouths.”

A version of this article was first published by our sister publication FoodManufacture.

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