Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Nanotechnologies and Food

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.1.  Humans have used technologies to modify their food ever since they invented cooking about 300,000 years ago. The dawn of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago brought with it a host of new technologies, including selective breeding to enhance crop and livestock yields, and techniques of preservation such as salting, drying, and smoking. The industrialisation of food manufacture in the 19th century led to further innovations in processing and storage, such as canning and freezing, and this continues up to the present day.

1.2.  New technologies have sometimes met resistance when first introduced. For instance, the mandatory pasteurisation of milk, which when introduced prevented in the region of 2,500 deaths from bovine tuberculosis a year in the United Kingdom, was fiercely resisted in the 1930s and 1940s, in the face of strong scientific evidence for the health benefits. More recently, the introduction of genetic modification into food production continues to meet with strong resistance in some parts of the world. Other technologies have been received without any protest, for example the introduction of pre-packaged frozen or chilled 'ready' meals.

1.3.  In this report we examine some of the issues related to the introduction of nanotechnologies into food production, a development that is still in its infancy but is projected to grow rapidly in the next few years. While the use of nanotechnologies in areas such as the electronic, chemical and pharmaceutical industries has been widely discussed, the extent to which these technologies are used, or might be used, in the food sector has received less attention.


1.4.  The presence of nanomaterials in food is not new. Some traditional food manufacturing processes result in the creation of nano-sized particles—for example, production of ricotta cheese involves allowing whey proteins to aggregate into protein nanoparticles (p 246) and production of chocolate and ice cream using natural ingredients involves changes to food structures at the nanoscale. But, historically, this has been done without an understanding of the changes that occur at this level. Since 1999, when the first commercial nanotechnology laboratory was set up, food companies have been researching applications of nanoscience and nanotechnologies with a view to the deliberate manipulation of food at the nanoscale. It is this development which we decided to consider more closely.

1.5.  When new technologies are introduced, the potential benefits must be weighed against the possible risks. Opinion about the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector is divided: we have heard evidence from witnesses who oppose their introduction and from those who are advocates of their development. An important aspect of our inquiry therefore has been to consider how the potential benefits of nanotechnologies might be achieved whilst addressing concerns about health and safety risks (both known and unknown), appropriate regulatory oversight, and effective mechanisms for public communication.

1.6.  Consumers are particularly sensitive about new technologies involving the scientific manipulation of food and understandably cautious about their introduction. The public response to the development of genetically modified food illustrates how quickly the views of some sectors of the public can change if action is not taken to meet concerns they may have about a new food technology. Part of our motivation, therefore, in examining the issues surrounding the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector is to identify mechanisms for enabling the public to make informed decisions about the impact and changes that nanotechnologies might bring.

Scope of the inquiry

1.7.  Our inquiry follows a number of other reports on nanotechnology, including those by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, the Council for Science and Technology, and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. These earlier reports have not focussed specifically on food, but some of their conclusions are echoed in our report. In our inquiry we have not confined our investigation solely to instances where nanomaterials are used as an ingredient of a food product itself. Nanotechnologies can be applied in the food sector in other ways which might result in their ingestion by consumers. We have therefore also looked at the use of nanotechnologies in pesticides and fertilizers, in food manufacturing processes and in food contact packaging. Given the width of our inquiry, we decided that we should not extend it into areas such as the environmental impact of the application of nanotechnologies in the food sector, or their use in products which, although not food, might lead to ingestion of nanomaterials (such as toothpaste), or cosmetics. In excluding these areas, we intend neither to diminish their importance nor to suggest that they should not be the subject of inquiry in the future.

Structure of the Report

1.8.  In Chapter 2 we briefly consider the meaning of nanoscience and associated concepts, and the development of nanoscale scientific investigation over the past few decades. In Chapter 3 we set out the current, and potential, uses of nanotechnologies in the food sector. We also consider what factors might influence the further development of their application in the United Kingdom, including measures that could be taken by the Government. In Chapter 4, we consider the health and safety aspects of the use of nanotechnologies, including the knowledge gaps which prevent a fully informed assessment of risk. We look at steps the Government have taken to address these knowledge gaps, and at whether more can be done.

1.9.  In Chapters 5 and 6, we consider the current regulatory regime governing the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector, asking whether it meets the dual purpose of protecting consumers whilst enabling scientists to continue to develop nanotechnologies, and whether it is effective in practice. Finally, in Chapter 7 we address issues relating to communication and public engagement.


1.10.  The membership and interests of the sub-committee are set out in Appendix 1 and those who submitted written and oral evidence are listed in Appendix 2. The call for evidence with which we launched our inquiry is reprinted in Appendix 3. In March 2009 we held a seminar to which academics, representatives from Government departments and a variety of other organisations contributed. A note of the seminar is set out in Appendix 4. In May 2009 we visited Unilever's Research and Development Facility in Colworth, Bedfordshire. A note of the visit is set out in Appendix 5. In June 2009 we visited Washington DC in the United States. A note of the visit is set out in Appendix 6. We would like to thank all those who assisted us in our work.

1.11.  Finally, we are very grateful to our Specialist Adviser, Professor Stephen Holgate, Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, for his expertise and guidance throughout this inquiry. We stress however that the conclusions we draw and recommendations we make are ours alone.

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