Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents


People are understandably sensitive about changes to the food that they eat. In the past the introduction of novel technologies in the food sector has sometimes met with resistance or even hostility. The public's attitude toward food is influenced by a number of considerations including a fear of novel risks, the level of trust in the effectiveness of regulation, and other wider social and psychological factors (shaped by views on health, the environment and science). The development of nanotechnologies in the food sector may well elicit some of these concerns. However, as many new technologies have in the past, they may offer consumers and society a number of benefits. We launched this inquiry into the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector to investigate whether nanotechnologies may indeed play a valuable role in the food sector, whether effective systems are in place to ensure that consumers are aware of and protected against any potential risks, and to understand and address some of the concerns that the public may have about these new technologies.

Nanotechnologies enable scientists to manipulate matter at the nanoscale (one thousand millionth of a metre). Within this size-range, materials can exhibit new and unusual properties, such as altered chemical reactivity, or changed electronic, optical or magnetic behaviour. Such materials have applications across a breadth of sectors, ranging from healthcare to construction and electronics.

Nanomaterials have a range of potential applications in the food sector that may offer benefits to both consumers and industry. These include creating foods with unaltered taste but lower fat, salt or sugar levels, or improved packaging that keeps food fresher for longer or tells consumers if the food inside is spoiled. At present the number of food products that contain nanomaterials is small, but this may well change over the next five years or so as the technology develops. For these reasons, we make a series of recommendations that are intended to support the responsible development of nanotechnologies in the food sector and to ensure that potential benefits to consumers and society are supported, where appropriate, by Government.

Nanotechnologies may also present new risks, as a result of their novel properties, as well as potential benefits to consumers. There are a wide variety of nanomaterials, and while many types of nanomaterials may well prove to be harmless, others may present a higher risk. Our current understanding of how they behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health. Persistent nanomaterials are of particular concern, since they do not break down in the stomach and may have the potential to leave the gut, travel throughout the body, and accumulate in cells with long-term effects that cannot yet be determined.

Regrettably, there is a limited amount of research looking at the toxicological impact of nanomaterials, particularly in areas relating to the risks posed by ingested nanomaterials. This research is needed in order to ensure that regulatory agencies can effectively assess the safety of products before they are allowed onto the market. We concluded that research into these areas was not being afforded a high enough priority by Government or the Research Councils, considering the timescale within which products containing nanomaterials may be developed. The Research Councils, in particular, have not been pro-active enough in encouraging research into key areas of uncertainty which will underpin the risk assessment of these substances. We recommend that they take a more active role in stimulating research in these areas.

The United Kingdom does not face these difficulties alone. It is essential that the Government work closely with other European Union nations, and at an international level, to ensure that knowledge gaps in research related to the health and safety risks of nanomaterials are filled quickly without duplication of effort.

It is equally important to ensure that the regulatory framework governing food is adequate to deal with the novel challenges posed by nanomaterials. While, in principle, existing legislation should ensure that all nanomaterials used in the food sector undergo a safety assessment before they are allowed on to the market, there are certain 'grey areas' where products containing nanomaterials may slip through the regulatory net. We make recommendations to fill these gaps; in particular, we recommend that a definition of nanomaterials be added to food legislation to ensure that all nanoscale materials that interact differently with the body as a result of their small size are assessed for risk before they are allowed on to the market.

While the coverage of existing legislation may be generally adequate we found that, due to the large gaps in the scientific understanding of nanomaterials, it was not yet possible to assess properly their safety in many cases. We were persuaded, however, that this does not mean unsafe products will be allowed on to the market; instead, it means that where the risks posed by a nanomaterial cannot be fully determined, products will simply be denied regulatory approval until further information is available. We recommend that the Food Standards Agency develop, in collaboration with the food industry, a database of information about nanomaterials in development to anticipate future risk assessment needs, to help the development of appropriate risk assessment procedures, and to aid in the prioritisation of research,

Effective public communication and transparency is essential, given public sensitivities over new food technologies, to ensure that consumers are able to make informed decisions about the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector. We were, therefore, concerned to find that the food industry has been reluctant to speak out about its activities in this area, primarily, it appears, because it is concerned about the public's reaction. We recommend that the Government make every effort to encourage the food industry to be more open about its activities, and suggest the formation of an open discussion group that will ensure that government, industry, academia and consumer groups come together to discuss the issues surrounding the development of nanotechnologies in the food sector in an on-going and transparent dialogue. In addition, we propose that the Food Standards Agency create and maintain a list of products containing nanomaterials as they enter the market, to encourage this culture of transparency.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010