Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 31 MARCH 2009
Dr Andrew Wadge, Dr Stephen Axford and Mr John Roberts
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
What areas do you think the applications are likely to be in and
are the Government doing something to encourage development of
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.
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.
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
DTIof which I take it DIUS is the successor body herepublished
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
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
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
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?
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.