Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

CHAPTER 7: Effective Communication

7.1.  For any new technology to succeed, the trust of consumers is vital. In the food sector, gaining that trust is a particular challenge - as recently demonstrated by the public reaction to the introduction of technologies such as genetic modification or irradiation. If the potential benefits of nanotechnologies are to be realised (see Chapter 3), consumers will need to feel confident that they are informed about the risks as well as the benefits and about the balance between them. As Ms Merron said: "consumers' fear is often about [a] lack of information" (Q 668). As a result, as the BRASS centre suggested, the provision of information "may be a key factor … to establishing the social legitimacy of some uses of nanotechnologies" (p 297). In more practical terms, Dr Kellie told us bluntly that, when "bringing new technologies to the market, if we do not bring the consumer with us, it is all a waste of time" (Q 198). In this chapter, we discuss current public attitudes towards nanotechnologies in the food sector and consider two principal activities of any public communications strategy: informing and engaging.

7.2.  We concentrate in this chapter on the value of public engagement activities, and make recommendations about ways in which they can be made more effective. We accept that such activities will not settle ethical issues that can arise in the development and marketing of foods containing nanomaterials. While we did not consider these matters as part of this inquiry, those relevant include: dealing with changing patterns of risk and benefit that consumers may incur when new technologies are introduced; the role that individual consent can play in making certain risks ethically acceptable; and the approach required when individual consent is not possible—for example when food safety standards are set for all.


7.3.  In 2004, the RS/RAEng report on nanotechnologies recommended that the Research Councils should fund a "sustained and extensive programme of research into public attitudes to nanotechnologies", and that the Government should initiate an "adequately funded public dialogue around the development of nanotechnologies".[84] This recommendation built on lessons learnt from past experiences of the introduction of new technologies (see Box 2).

7.4.  In 2005, the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG) was established by the Government. Its purpose was to document the learning from a series of exercises designed to involve members of public in discussions about the development and governance of nanotechnologies. The final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG), Democratic Technologies, was published in 2007[85]. The report identified six engagement projects in the United Kingdom and included a number of conclusions and recommendations to Government on how to take forward engagement activity in future. When asked whether the recommendations had been taken forward, Mr Simon Burall, Director of Involve, the organisation that drafted the report, said: "My sense is that things have not really moved very far forward since that report was written" (Q 354).

7.5.  In 2008, the Government launched an initiative, Science and Society, in order to "improve both the understanding and engagement of science with the general public, and to ensure that there is a clear understanding within the science community … of the duty … to engage with the general public" (Q 587). Lord Drayson told us that part of this initiative included a Government commitment to developing a dialogue with the public on issues arising from the application of nanotechnologies within the food sector (Q 588).


Learning from past experiences

During the past 20 years there have been several controversies arising from the way in which scientific information has been used by policy-makers, and how this has been presented to the public. Examples include public concern over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), genetically modified (GM) foods and the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Lessons have been learned from these events (see, for example, David Gee Late lessons from early warnings[86], or the Philips inquiry into the BSE crisis). These include:

  • Recognizing the limitations of scientific knowledge and not making   overconfident claims about safety or risk;
  • Acknowledging scientific uncertainties;
  • Being transparent about the process of scientific risk assessment, and the   risks that the public may be exposed to; and
  • Recognising that public concerns which extend beyond purely scientific   issues have a significant effect on the public's acceptance of new   technologies.

In 1997 the Government Chief Scientific Adviser issued Guidelines on Scientific Analysis in Policy Making which enshrined some of these points. If policy-makers and communicators recognise and act on these lessons, it may help enable consumers make informed judgments about the risks and benefits of novel technologies.

Current public attitudes to the use of nanotechnologies

7.6.  Our witnesses confirmed that public attitudes towards the use of nanotechnologies were among the most important factors in determining their future in the food sector (QQ 198, 199, Appendix 6). Yet information about the public's views is limited. A number of witnesses suggested that more information about the public's views and concerns about nanotechnologies should be gathered. A FSA report, An Evidence Review of Public Attitudes to Emerging Technologies, published in 2009, concluded that: "it is clear that there is a great deal more that needs to be found out about public attitudes"[87], while Professor Pidgeon told us "we are at a very early stage in trying to understand public understanding and perception on nanotechnology, both as a general concept and … [in relation to] food" (Q 348). Which? said that there should be "more effective consumer engagement at the earliest opportunity specifically focused around potential food development" (p 138). Despite this lack of evidence, witnesses were able to point us towards some general conclusions about the public's attitudes towards the use of nanotechnologies, both generally and in the food sector.


7.7.  The level of public awareness and understanding of nanotechnologies generally appears to be relatively low. A study conducted by Which? in 2008 showed that only 45 per cent of people in the United Kingdom had heard of the term "nanotechnology" and those who had heard of it were often uncertain as to exactly what it was (p 138). A study in the United States, also in 2008, showed that only 49 per cent of Americans surveyed had heard of nanotechnology (p 296). Paradoxically, whilst public awareness of nanotechnologies is low, when asked whether the benefits would outweigh the risks, many gave a positive answer. Professor Pidgeon offered the following explanation: "people are bringing in a judgement about general technological progress … we know from other surveys of attitudes towards technology in general, not in specific, the public remain very positive about science and technology" (Q 349).


7.8.  But public attitudes towards the use of nanotechnologies generally and public attitudes to the use of nanotechnologies for particular applications differ (Q 349). As a result, as Professor Pidgeon explained, food will have "a unique risk perception signature, so you cannot necessarily extrapolate easily from responses to … nanotechnology in cosmetics to food" (Q 349). The FSA report on public attitudes stated that "the overall tone of public attitudes towards novel food technologies is one of wariness, unease, uncertainty, and sometimes outright negativity". It concluded that;

"this can partly be explained by the fact that food is not simply thought of in functional terms; rather it is part of a much larger wider social and psychological setting which includes … attitudes to health, the environment, and science, as well as deep-seated values and fundamental world outlook, not to mention personal and familial habitual behaviours". [88]

7.9.  According to the FSA report, whereas the public often had concerns about aspects of nanotechnologies (particularly the scientific uncertainty associated with them), this was generally balanced by an optimistic view of the potential benefits. However, when questioned about the food sector specifically, "people seem less convinced about the potential benefits that food applications might bring".[89] The FSA report states, "there appears to be much less enthusiasm towards their [nanotechnologies] use in food than in other applications".[90] A survey carried out for PEN in 2007 found that only seven per cent of Americans would buy "nanofoods" and 62 per cent would require more information on the risks and benefits before doing so. As for food packaging containing nanomaterials, only 12 per cent were willing to purchase such packaging and 73 per cent required further information before making a decision (p 304).

7.10.  Given the importance of public opinion, and the multitude of factors at work, we agree that more work should be undertaken in order to understand consumer views on nanotechnologies in the food sector. We recommend that the Government commission a survey of public attitudes towards the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector, with the aim of informing debate on the subject. This work should be carried out regularly to keep pace with evolving public opinion.

Communication and engagement with the public

7.11.  A public communications and engagement strategy should seek to:

  • provide the public with the information they need, whether by the Government or industry or other relevant bodies, to allow them to make informed judgements about the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector; and
  • ensure there is a mechanism in place to allow a dialogue between the public and the major stakeholders as this novel technology is introduced.



7.12.  Our witnesses agreed that there was a role for Government in communicating issues about nanotechnologies in food. The Food Additives Industry Association (FAIA), said that it was essential to ensure that debate remained balanced and was not "misrepresented" or "the subject of biased reporting in certain segments of the popular press and broadcast media" (p 303), a view echoed by Dr Friedrichs (Q 514). Dr Knowles told us that industry "support any … form of education for the public about nanotechnology" (Q 175), while Mr Opie said the benefits and risks of nanotechnologies had to be explained to consumers and "put in proportion in a way … they can understand" (Q 177). Other witnesses agreed (Q 186). Mr Burall agreed, but stressed that the Government had to be "open about the risks" and ensure that information was complete and not pushing "a particular line" (Q 374).

7.13.  In their response to the RCEP report the Government stated that they had commissioned a pilot initiative "to provide public access to a balanced source of information on nanotechnologies". The initiative would be based around "an interactive website … both providing information and enabling public interaction and debate".[91] Professor Pidgeon supported this project, and told us that: "it is part of the process of making … the issues around nanotechnology transparent to the public" (Q 373). The pilot website,, is now online.

7.14.  We welcome the Government's decision to commission a website designed to give the public a balanced source of information on nanotechnologies, and commend the decision to include a section specifically covering issues related to the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector.


7.15.  Representatives of PEN in the United States told us that, when asked the question "how can the public be reassured about the development of nanotechnologies?", focus groups always responded with "transparency" as the most important factor (see Appendix 6). Other witnesses made the same point. Mr Burall, for example, stressed the need for "absolute transparency to build on trust" (Q 374) and Lord Drayson told us that the most important lesson that the Government had learnt was that "the more open an industry and science is with the general public, the greater the confidence of the general public" (Q 584).

7.16.  We therefore found it regrettable that evidence indicated that, far from being transparent about its activities, the food industry was refusing to talk about its work in this area. The Royal Society referred to "industry reticence" (p 363) and Which? said that it was "very difficult to gain a clear picture of the extent to which ... research is taking place into future applications" (p 133). Mr Burall had a similar experience with regard to public engagement activities: the "food producers are very reluctant to participate in any of the public engagements … we studied" (Q 351) and Professor Pidgeon said that it had been difficult to persuade food companies to fund any public engagement projects (Q 357). PEN suggested that the same was true of the industry in the United States and the GMA also told us that companies had retreated from a public dialogue on the subject in recent years (see Appendix 6).

7.17.  Witnesses suggested that the industry's attitude was mainly due to fear of a negative public reaction. Dr Kampers told us: "the industry is very, very reluctant to communicate that they are using nanotechnology in food … because they are very much afraid of the reaction of the consumer to the product" (Q 115), Ms Groves (Q 116), Professor Morris (Q 125) and Professor Jones (Q 515) agreed. The BRC shared this view and observed that public confidence in new technology in the food sector was still recovering from the genetically modified foods debate in the 1990s (p 81).

7.18.  We acknowledge the food industry's concern, but we consider that this is exactly the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction which it is trying to avert. Ms Davies, for example, suggested that if the industry were not open about their work at this early stage, there was a danger that people would become suspicious (Q 300), a view echoed by Dr Falkner who said that if food producers "even give the appearance of not wanting to be transparent … then you are suspected of devious practices" (Q 342). Lord Drayson said that "the industry in this case needs to learn some of the lessons which were learned relating to GM foods" (see Box 2 above) and warned that there could be no effective public engagement "if companies are not providing clarity about the work that is being done and potential applications" (Q 563).

7.19.  We acknowledge that some information held by companies will be commercially sensitive and, as a consequence, confidential. But we do not consider that this should preclude them from taking significant steps towards being more open. Ms Merron said that her wish was to see "greater transparency from the companies" (Q 669). We agree. We recommend that the Government work with the food industry to secure more openness and transparency about their research and development and their future plans for the application of nanotechnologies in the food sector.


7.20.  While transparency is important, it does not, in itself, ensure effective communication. Information must not only be available, it must be accessible and relevant. Some witnesses proposed improving transparency by requiring food products manufactured using nanotechnologies to be labelled as such. Ms Davies, for example, felt that although it was a "difficult issue", "on balance it is important in terms of transparency" (Q 311); and BRASS said that providing information to the public through labelling might be key factor in establishing the "social legitimacy" of nanotechnologies in food (pp 296-297). Other witnesses also supported labelling (QQ 305, 458).

7.21.  Other witnesses expressed reservations. PEN, for example, told us that "the current state of [the] science suggests that there are no underlying mechanisms of action that would justify blanket labelling of food items containing engineered nanomaterials … such labelling would obfuscate evidence-based decision-making" (p 334). The Novel Foods Regulation requires that the labelling of each product is assessed on a case-by-case basis. This provides the flexibility to require, for example, that a particular ingredient is labelled. The Minister, Ms Merron, said:

"For me if blanket labelling of what something contains does not tell me something that is going to assist me to make a sensible decision then it may simply mislead me. That is why I think blanket labelling is not helpful and that is why I think it should be case-by-case" (Q 659)

She continued:

"I am not seeking to withhold information; I am seeking to ensure that we have the right amount of information in the right form that consumers want and will be able to use" (Q 665).

7.22.  The NIA took a similar view: "consumers need to be provided with information … labelling is not necessarily the best way to provide balanced information—it often raises concern and causes confusion" (p 245). Professor Pidgeon agreed (Q 369). Mr Opie suggested that the industry's approach to labelling would depend on whether it was felt labels would be helpful to consumers: "we would do it if we thought it was necessary … we put [information] on to help consumers make a choice" (Q 204). Dr Knowles agreed (Q 205).

7.23.  In the United States, the FDA told us that it had no plans to introduce labelling for nanotechnologies. The FDA only requires information to be included on a label if it is necessary in order for the consumer to use the product safely (see Appendix 6). This contrasts with the approach in the European Union, where certain information is included on the label because the public has a presumed right to be informed (for example, genetically modified foods are labelled in the European Union but not in the United States).

7.24.  Consumers can expect to have access to information about the food they eat. But blanket labelling of nanomaterials on packages is not, in our view, the right approach to providing information about the application of nanotechnologies. We believe the primary mechanism should be a public register of foods containing nanomaterials, as we have recommended in Chapter 6 above. We also urge that the Government, along with consumer groups, should consider other means through which this information can be made available and accessible to consumers.

Public engagement


7.25.  A number of witnesses argued in favour of a public engagement strategy to complement mechanisms for providing information. Without an engagement strategy, the public might feel, according to Mr Burall, that the Government were simply providing information with the intention of "pushing the acceptance of nanotechnology" (Q 368). Which? said that the "lessons from the introduction of other new technologies … has been that it is essential to engage the public at the outset and ensure that there is a two way exchange" (p 138). Ms Miller referred to the importance of providing the public with a voice in Government decision-making in areas such as innovation strategy and research priorities (Q 313); and Lord Drayson said that it was "very important to be engaging with the general public and consumer groups" in particular about the "perceived risks and potential benefits of … technologies" so that the development of the technologies and their application did not get ahead of public confidence in them (Q 562).

7.26.  In 2000, we published our report Science and Society which concluded that, in order to meet a need for more effective dialogue with the public on science issues, the Government should be open to "substantial influence and effective inputs from diverse groups".[92] Witnesses in this inquiry made a similar point. Ms Miller, for example, told us:

"Unless the Government is in a situation where it is prepared to really commit to taking on board findings, not to being led by them but certainly being informed by them and really committing to integrate the outcomes of public dialogue in its own process of policy development, then I would suggest that public engagement is actually of little value" (Q 307).

7.27.  Ms Davies said: "it is important … that there is a commitment to enabling it [public engagement] to feed into policy (Q 309); and Dr Chris Groves, Research Associate at the BRASS centre, said that "engagement needs to have some degree of input into shaping research agendas and regulatory policy" (p 304). The 2007 report of the NEG (see paragraph 7.4 above) concluded that "there is an aspiration on all sides that future public engagement processes should be better connected to institutional decision-making" and suggested a series of measures to improve this connection.[93] The RCEP report called for "on-going opportunities for public and expert reflection and debate" and stressed that this should be a continuing activity.[94] Dr Groves felt that it was "necessary to support … systematic and iterative dialogue, with the possibility of allowing its focus to evolve as potential applications become more concrete" (p 305).


7.28.  There is general support for public engagement activity. But the concept of "public" is a complex one. We recognise there are many different audiences within the public and that activities should be tailored to these different audiences. Professor Pidgeon, when discussing the benefits of a register of nanotechnologies, provided an illustration of this. He suggested that although people were in favour of information being placed in the public domain, in general they tended not to look at the information themselves but instead were reassured by the fact that someone else had access to the information and could perform a watchdog function—the availability of information, he suggested, provided an "opportunity for others in civil society to look on your behalf" (Q 379). We see a parallel between this example and the role of public engagement activities. We acknowledge the importance of giving individual members of the public a voice. But we—and, it seems, members of the public—recognise also that this voice is often most effectively mediated by representative groups such as consumer groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals with a particular interest in this topic. Framing effective public engagement strategies needs to take into account these different audiences within the public—as Mr Burall told us, "what you are trying to do" should determine what type of audience you should engage with (Q 366).


7.29.  In addition to a more general public engagement strategy with members of the general public there is, as Ms Miller suggested, "an effective role for stakeholders … I would suggest … there should be a broad range of community as well as industry, research and Government stakeholders involved in dialogue together" (Q 307). The RCEP report, in the context of a range of nanotechnology applications, considered the possibility of a "standing deliberative forum, designed to inform policy on nanotechnology development, regulation and research" and suggested that the Nanotechnologies Stakeholder Forum currently organised and funded by DEFRA might be a suitable starting point.[95] We agree that the Nanotechnologies Stakeholder Forum provides a useful model on which to base a public engagement group to discuss the issues surrounding the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector.

7.30.  As for who should participate in such a forum, we believe that it is important that the food industry, as well as the Government, the academic community and consumer groups, should play an active role in any public debate (Q 357). We acknowledge that, as Mr Burall told us, industry cannot lead the debate since it is seen by the public as promoting a particular commercial line (Q 352). We believe that this is a role for Government.

7.31.  We recommend that the Government should establish an open discussion group, along the lines of the DEFRA-sponsored Nanotechnology Stakeholder Forum, to discuss issues surrounding the application of nanotechnologies in the food sector. This group should contain representatives from Government, academia and industry, as well as from representative groups from the public such as consumer groups and non-governmental organisations. Meetings should take place on a regular basis as nanotechnology applications are developed and enter the United Kingdom food market. The Government should ensure that the concerns of, and the suggestions made by, the group are published and taken into account in policy decision-making processes. The Government should report on how these concerns are being met at regular intervals.

84   RS/RAEng Nanoscience and nanotechnologies, op.cit., p 87, paras R18, R19. Back

85   Involve, Democratic Technologies?: The final report of the Nanotechnology Engagement Group (NEG), 2007. Back

86   Gee D et al., The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century-Late lessons from early warnings, European Environment Agency Earthscan Productions, 2002. Back

87   Food Standards Agency (FSA), An Evidence Review of Public Attitudes to Emerging Technologies, 2009, p 53. Back

88   FSA, An Evidence Review, op. cit., p 6. Back

89   Ibid., FSA, An Evidence Review, p 28. Back

90   Ibid., FSA, An Evidence Review, p 27. Back

91   Government response to RCEP report Novel Materials, op. cit., p 23. Back

92   Science and Technology Committee, 3rd Report (1999-2000): Science and Society (HL Paper 38), p 7. Back

93   Involve, Democratic Technologies?, op. cit., pp 99-101. Back

94   RCEP, Novel Materials, op. cit., p 73, para 4.95. Back

95   Ibid., RCEP, Novel Materials, p 74, para 4.99. Back

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