Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)


Dr Andrew Wadge, Dr Stephen Axford and Mr John Roberts

  Q1  Chairman: Good morning, I should like to welcome our first three witnesses; this is the first public hearing of the Select Committee's inquiry into nanotechnologies and food and I should like to thank you very much for coming to join us to kick off our inquiry. I should inform you that the proceedings are being webcast, so your sotto voce comments will be picked up and broadcast to the nation. I should also draw attention to the information note which is available to members of the public. This sets out the interests which have been declared by members of the Select Committee, so I will not be asking members to repeat their interests whilst they are asking questions because you have those written down. Before we start on our questioning I should like to invite the three witnesses to introduce themselves and also, if they have any opening statement they would like to make at this stage, to make a statement please. Perhaps we could start with Dr Axford.

  Dr Axford: Stephen Axford from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills where I am responsible for Science and Society. That comes with a specific interest relevant to today of the public engagement, public dialogue and attitude of the public towards the science.

  Dr Wadge: I am Andrew Wadge. I am the Director of Food Safety and Chief Scientist at the Food Standards Agency, so considerable interest obviously in the topic today.

  Mr Roberts: I am John Roberts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I head the division which deals with chemicals and nanotechnologies.

  Q2  Chairman: Are there any general comments that the three of you would like to make before we move to the questions? Do you have any prepared opening statement you would like to make or are you happy just to go to the questions?

  Dr Wadge: I am happy to go straight to the questions.

  Q3  Chairman: I will kick off with a very general question which is to ask you how the Government see the opportunities and challenges for nanotechnologies in the food sector. We are obviously just starting this inquiry but we have heard various comments about the very large potential for nanotechnologies in the food sector, which is of course why we are carrying out this inquiry at this point. I should be interested to hear your views on both the opportunities and the challenges.

  Dr Wadge: The words "potential" and "challenge" are very much pertinent here in that a lot of the applications are very much at a potential stage; they are still in the laboratory. There is a lot of talk about what might be in the future in terms of applications, perhaps in food contact materials or in relation to specific ingredients. Those are potential applications which may bring benefits for food manufacturers and possibly for the consumers as well. In terms of challenges, our number one challenge, certainly from the Food Standards Agency perspective and Government perspective more generally, will be to ensure consumer safety. It is assessing the safety and looking at whether the risk assessment paradigms are appropriate, looking at the regulatory framework, whether the current regulatory framework is appropriate and also another challenge is around consumer and public engagement and understanding of nanotechnologies. We have obviously learned from previous experience where technologies have developed without some appreciation and understanding amongst the public that whilst on one level they may confer certain benefits, if the public are not convinced or are mistrustful of those benefits, then they will not be interested in purchasing the products. In general there is tremendous potential there but it is very much at the potential stage; uncertainties exist in terms of what that might mean and real challenges centre around assessing safety and public acceptance.

  Q4  Chairman: I do not know whether the other witnesses wish to add anything at this point. You say that the development is still at the laboratory stage and we will come back to that later on in the session to try to understand where we are. Are you talking about the UK or are you talking about globally when you refer to the product still being at the research and development stage rather than in the market?

  Dr Wadge: In general, a lot of the potential is still in the laboratory stage. There are products on the market globally and there are two products that we are aware of that are currently on the market in the UK; rather niche products, I have to say, that are both food supplements. It is very much the case that we are looking at potential applications in the UK rather than products on the market but we are aware that in other parts of the world there is perhaps a greater range of products on the market.

  Q5  Chairman: What areas do you think the applications are likely to be in and are the Government doing something to encourage development of those applications?

  Dr Wadge: I will leave colleagues to talk about the extent to which we are encouraging the innovation of new technologies. The main areas in relation to food are food contact materials and the opportunities that are present for nanomaterials to provide greater impermeability. I see prevention of permeability, antimicrobial applications, perhaps intelligent packaging and sensors and also, in terms of food ingredients, greater solubility of fatty materials in an aqueous media, ingredients and contact materials as the most likely. That is the intelligence that we have got from our conversations and discussions with the food industry.

  Q6  Chairman: What about initiatives? Maybe DIUS can give us a view on initiatives for encouraging nanotechnology development.

  Dr Axford: Yes. We would have to look to the structures we have in place such as the Technology Strategy Board, Knowledge Transfer Networks and so forth which are ways of getting the science out of the laboratory and into those businesses which can find ways of developing innovative products and developing the commercial opportunities.

  Q7  Chairman: Can you say anything more specific about that?

  Dr Axford: I do not know a huge amount of the detail of some of those specifics around particular technologies, certainly not specifically in relation to food. I would have to look to colleagues who were closer to the food sector.

  Chairman: Perhaps that is something you could send us a note on to follow that up, just to look more specifically at what is being done to encourage R&D and translation in relation to food.

  Q8  Lord Crickhowell: We had a seminar the other day with a wide representative group of advisers and I asked the same question then. We are told today, as we were told then, that there are only two known products, supplements and so on, in this country; we are going to cover questions about European legislation later. However, the fact is that we live in a global world and therefore I am rather sceptical about the view that because products are not known to be here, that are known to be in use in other parts of the world, they will not be here and it seems that if they are not now, they very soon will be, either in large quantities or brought in in various ways. Could you enlarge a little on this slight disregard for what is happening globally elsewhere? We heard, for example, of one manufacturing company based in the United States and what it was doing in the way of research and so on. Clearly there is a great deal going on in other parts of the world. How are we setting about really seriously identifying the global impact, which must be a UK impact as well?

  Dr Wadge: I certainly would not want to give the impression that we are complacent about what is happening around the world. That is partly why we have commissioned two projects and we have provided you with reports on them in terms of what the current state of the market is. We have not been solely looking within the UK; we have been looking more broadly. You are absolutely right; if products are being developed in other parts of the world then we have a global food supply. Obviously within Europe we have European food legislation which requires that any food which is imported into the UK or any other part of the EU needs to meet at least the level of food safety requirements within the EU. That provides some reassurance but that is why we need to look at specifically improving methods of assessing the hazard characterisation and identification, exposure assessment, better understanding about what happens when nanomaterials are ingested, how they are distributed through tissues in the body and the toxicity of these materials. Those will be important areas for research that go along side by side with the development of the products. It is important as well that we tailor the research to meet the specific nature and properties of the nanomaterials which are being developed.

  Q9  Lord Haskel: Dr Wadge spoke about the challenges of safety and public engagement. It seems to me that one of the challenges would be, from the point of view of the man in the street, the fact that these materials are so small. Are we able to detect them so that we know whether they are present or not? Is the state of the science of detecting them sufficiently advanced as well?

  Dr Wadge: Yes, it is a significant challenge and it is one which we will need to address over the years. At the moment I do not think we can be clear about the distribution of nanomaterials within the body, whether we can detect them in tissues and therefore to carry out a full and complete risk assessment you would need that type of information.

  Q10  Lord Haskel: Can we detect them in food?

  Dr Wadge: It depends what we are talking about. Part of the challenge here is that we are talking about nanotechnologies, a whole range of different technologies from micelles to hard particles to biodegradable particles. Certainly, with products which are going to be approved and put on the market, that is something which we will look at very closely to make sure that there are appropriate testing methods and means of assessing the exposure and the safety of those products.

  Q11  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: This is a very general question. How do the Government coordinate their work on nanotechnologies? How do they strategise? How do they prioritise funding through research and innovation? I should say that in the next question we will come to some more specific points about the Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group, so we know that exists. Generally how do the Government coordinate?

  Dr Axford: Taking an overview of that, you mentioned the Research Coordination Group and that is down a level below the strategic. There is a ministerial group on nanotechnologies, currently chaired by Lord Drayson, including representatives speaking for the ministers who speak for health and safety; I think that is Work and Pensions. Other members of the high level ministerial group are Huw Irranca-Davies from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dawn Primarolo from Health, Lord McKenzie of Luton, responsible for health and safety and Ian Pearson from Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform [now known as Business Innovation and Skills]. That sets Government's direction on nanotechnologies overall; obviously not exclusively with relation to food but across the piece. Below that there is also effectively a policy group called the Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group. That allows the Government to coordinate activity at a policy level, that is between all interested parties, between Government and other stakeholders. Then there are other bodies such as the Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group which looks at how the publicly funded research, say in research councils and elsewhere, is covered and looked after. Then there is a number of other groups as well which inform those various bodies such as the Stakeholder Forum which is open to the public, which allows wider views to be input to the system.

  Q12  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: That lists the bodies, which is extremely helpful. When we come to the actions which are taken, for example in December 2006 the DTI—of which I take it DIUS is the successor body here—published a review of the framework of current regulations covering nanomaterials. How are the Government responding to that review? Who is coordinating the response specifically?

  Dr Axford: In relation to how it responds on the nanotechnology regulations, that is Defra.

  Mr Roberts: The BRASS report reviewed the regulations which were applicable to nanotechnology and demonstrated in fact that there is a very wide range of potential regulations. Many of them in fact derive from European regimes; many of the regulatory regimes are determined by European legislation. We are currently pulling together responses from departments because a wide range of different departments have responsibility for the particular regimes and we are asking them to make sure that they continue to have regard to nanotechnology issues as they develop those regimes. The European Commission has also published its own review of the European regulation; that was done towards the end of last year. They also are monitoring and keeping an eye on how those various regimes need to respond.

  Q13  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: In their evidence to us DIUS talked about the development of a national strategy for nanotechnologies. What progress is there at this point on that strategy and who is responsible for coordination?

  Dr Axford: Agreement to the strategy will be taken by the ministerial group. They are next meeting towards the end of April, when they will agree the way ahead for the next steps of the strategy, potentially including a consultative process through the summer into the autumn. That is where that is at the moment.

  Q14  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: So there is a draft strategy at this point.

  Dr Axford: I do not believe there is a draft strategy.

  Q15  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: The workings for one?

  Dr Axford: It is certainly work in progress with, no doubt, an awful lot of evidence and information already collated. It has to capture the work of many other parties who are also similarly developing what you might call strategies both on the research end but also the Technology Strategy Board also has its own development of a strategy for nanotechnologies. Government have to somehow capture all of these in their overarching strategy.

  Q16  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: It is now nearly five years since the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report on nanotechnologies was published. Is this not quite a slow pace at which to be developing a strategy?

  Dr Axford: I do not know the answer to that question. I would imagine that it is an incredibly complex area and as others have already alluded to, there are huge issues around knowing who should be accountable, who should be responsible, where the regulatory regimes reside and I imagine it is finding one's way through the forest which is slowing it down.

  Q17  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: What was the purpose of the 2006 review which followed the Royal Society and Royal Academy study? DTI published a review of the framework of current regulations and nanomaterials; that was in 2006, three years ago. It does seem an unconscionably long period. Who is responsible? Which department was responsible for leading on this?

  Mr Roberts: May I just answer that slightly differently by saying that the government approach is based on two things? First of all we need to get the science in place because the science has to underpin the way that the regulatory system develops. Then we need to keep an eye on the regulatory system. To the extent that it needs to be changed, we need to make the changes. The BRASS report showed that in a lot of areas the regulation is in principle capable of dealing with nanotechnology, provided that one understands the risks and the hazards that nanotechnology may present. It is a question of developing the science and developing the regulation step by step to keep the two together. Would it be helpful if I talked a little bit about how the research agenda has been carried forward since the Royal Society report, because I think that may help?

  Q18  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Roberts: Following the Royal Society report the Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group identified 19 research priorities which were set out. There are five taskforces under that coordination group which take forward particular aspects. Those are to do with measurement and detection and characterisation of nanomaterials, fate and behaviour in the environment, human toxicology, co-toxicology and social engagement. It has taken a while to get momentum on the research, but it is true to say that the research is now accelerating. Over the period 2005-08 the Government spent about £10 million on research in these areas and I suspect the pace has picking up since. I can refer to a number of particular initiatives but not an overall figure. I just make the point that some of the research we are doing for underpinning regulation is actually also relevant to innovation. For example, characterising and detecting nanomaterials is important for regulation, but it also forms the basis for the industry to take forward, so some of the research covers more than two areas. In terms of research, last year we commissioned an independent review of the progress we have made on those 19 research objectives, a very comprehensive piece of research which was done by a team of academics and it will be published very shortly; it is going through peer review and final preparation for publication. That was encouraging in the sense that they found a lot of evidence that progress is being made on all the research objectives but it also indicated that on none of the research objectives have we yet completed the task. We do not yet know the answer fully on any of the research objectives. What we are going to do with that research is to use it to revisit the 19 research objectives to identify the gaps and the next directions so that we can take forward the next phase of research. If I may, the other two points I would make about research are first of all that we need to do this internationally. As Lord Crickhowell was saying, the issue is global; there is a lot of experience in other countries and we can get much better results if we coordinate our research programmes. That is being done through OECD, which has a similar structure of task forces, and we are sharing out research tasks among us to cover the field. The other observation is that the most productive research tends to come from collaborative projects involving different institutions and different disciplines. We are seeing much stronger results coming through from that, although it does take a little bit longer to get the research proposals put together and in place. In my own area, two quite exciting issues are the environmental nanoscience initiative, the second phase; the first phase was worth about £850,000, the second phase will be worth about £4.5 million and almost half that money is coming from the US because we have a partnership with the US EPA, so we will get the benefits of collaboration there. OECD has set out an ambitious programme to look at 14 of the most commonly produced nanoparticles. We are taking forward analysis of two of them; as it happens they are not food products but cerium oxide and zinc oxide. We have just launched a £3.5 million programme to characterise those two nanomaterials. Other countries will be doing others which are on the list. When that work is done we will know about those particular substances in much more detail but we will also have a much better knowledge of how to do the assessment of nanomaterials, how to do the characterisation, the measurement and the assessment of health and safety implications.

  Q19  Lord Methuen: We have talked quite a lot about the national Research Coordination Group but in 2007 the Council for Science and Technology expressed concern over the progress of funding for health and safety research. You indicated that quite a lot of progress has been made in addressing these concerns. Would you comment on that?

  Mr Roberts: Those were the points I have been covering to some extent. The EMERGNANO report has looked at something like 650 projects which have been financed globally over the last three or four years. It has demonstrated that there has been progress on all of our research objectives but there is still progress to be made on all of them.

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