Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)


Dr Andrew Wadge, Dr Stephen Axford and Mr John Roberts

  Q20  Lord Methuen: The CST stated that the primary reason for this lack of research was the Government's over-reliance on responsive funding to deliver the necessary research. What has been done to overcome that problem or would you not agree with that?

  Mr Roberts: The question of funding is an important one and the route we have chosen to go down is using the existing mechanisms and existing programmes and seeking to coordinate them, for example relying on the budgets of my department to look at environmental issues, the Medical Research Council and the DoH to look at toxicological issues, the Food Standards Agency to look at food issues. This has the strength that the research is embedded in those departments' programmes and those are the departments who will need to use the research for their regulatory processes but it does not mean that we have a single centrally directed budget to drive forward the research.

  Dr Axford: In terms of research councils, there is a major cross-council programme on nanotechnology and even within that, on the issues, for example, of toxicology, the Medical Research Council has specifically had a call to look at that area, to look at the implications of nanotechnology on health to the tune of about £3 million.

  Q21  Lord Methuen: What is being done to look at the long-term effects of possible toxicity due to nanomaterials?

  Dr Axford: I would imagine that will be part of the research undertaken.

  Q22  Lord Methuen: But you are not aware of what is going on at the moment.

  Dr Axford: No, not the detail of what has actually been funded under that programme.

  Q23  Chairman: What sort of response has there been to the MRC's call?

  Dr Axford: It is fully taken up. It is a direct programme but it is obviously there to be responded to.[26]

  Q24Chairman: Mr Roberts, in your helpful summary of the OECD assessment of risk associated with 14 nanomaterials, as I understood it the 14 did not include any potential food applications. Do you think it should?

  Mr Roberts: I think it is right that it does not contain many that are connected with food, although possibly the nanoclays may be used in bottles and therefore may have some link with food. They were chosen on the basis that they are ones which are in production now and therefore where there is potentially exposure to the environment or to human beings from those. It is those where we have some evidence available in order to make the assessments. It was a programme designed to capitalise on what we already have and the challenges we face today rather than a more prospective programme looking at potential applications in future.

  Q25  Chairman: We have heard that, for example, the nanosilver particles are used in food contact materials like chopping boards or refrigerators. Is nanosilver included in the list of 14?

  Mr Roberts: It is. Nanosilver was identified by the Royal Commission as one that was potentially something we should be concerned about. Defra has asked our Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances to have a look at the issues around nanosilver and they are due to give us preliminary advice, although it will require some further work.

  Q26  Earl of Selborne: On silver, when you mentioned earlier that there were two known food products with nanoparticles, was silver one of them?

  Dr Wadge: Yes, in relation to a supplement.

  Q27  Earl of Selborne: Yet the European Food Safety Authority has said that there is not enough evidence to suggest that this is cumulatively safe. How is it then that this has got through the system already?

  Dr Wadge: Yes, that is one which will fall within the system; at the moment it is outside the system, it is quite a niche product and has been around for a long time. Under the new controls on supplements, that will fall out of the permitted list from January next year, 2010, because the safety data has not been provided to support that.

  Q28  Earl of Selborne: That means that the material which is already available will be withdrawn.

  Dr Wadge: Yes.

  Q29  Lord Crickhowell: May I ask a general question and then follow up with a specific one which has already been touched on? Mr Roberts, you have been giving very helpful and impressive evidence, if I may say so. We were a bit surprised that Defra's response to our enquiries was a one-page note on pesticides. We wondered what Defra were up to. Clearly Defra are more heavily involved than that indicated. You have been doing your best to cover a lot of ground in response to specific questions. Surely what we are going to need from you is a pretty detailed report from Defra about all this work you are clearly engaged in and about which we have not yet been informed except by you this morning. May I ask that you follow up your evidence—I hope the Chairman agrees to my request—with a really detailed account from Defra of what you are doing, covering all these points you have been talking about and adding any more that you would like to include. May I then put my specific question which follows two which have already been asked by Lord Methuen and the Earl of Selborne in a way and that is on long-term toxicology? Certainly the medical evidence that we received in an interesting seminar we had indicated that we do not really know a great deal yet about long-term effects. We know a good deal about the way the gut absorbs and the effectiveness of the gut in dealing with all the normal things, including some of the natural nanoparticles which it has been dealing with for millennia, but we do not know the long-term effects yet and we do not know therefore how these nanoparticles move on into the other parts of the body, the brain particularly and so on. Is one of these 19 research projects really homing in on the need for this long-term assessment of nanoparticles on the human body? If not, what is going to be done about it?

  Dr Wadge: While John is looking through the particular 19 projects, I should like to comment on that, if I may? One of the real challenges for us is around the toxicological assessment and the risk assessment. We have received advice from our independent Committee on Toxicity and also the independent panel which advises the European Food Safety Authority that whilst the current risk assessment paradigm is appropriate there are considerable gaps in our understanding along the way around exposure and distribution and toxicity. I think that there will need to be a considerable amount of research in this area and I know that the MRC are picking up some of that. However, it raises bigger, wider questions about whether we have the appropriate capacity of toxicologists within the UK and that is something we need to look at. I am sure that at an OECD level, consideration will be given to develop harmonised risk assessment processes for nanomaterials. OECD currently agree the toxicological assessments for long-term effects of contaminants and other chemicals and it will be OECD which agrees those risk assessment methods for the very specific thing you mentioned around long-term toxicity. You are absolutely right that this is an area which will need a lot more research.

  Q30  Chairman: Before we move on to the next question, perhaps we could home in on the particular issue of toxicology in the gut which Lord Crickhowell mentioned. We have gained the impression that, at least in this country, there is rather limited expertise in that area which is crucial of course to understanding potential risks associated with food. I just wondered, either from the Food Standards Agency or from DIUS, how many grants have been issued for research in relation to toxicology of nanoparticles in the gut which would be a central issue in understanding and filling the gaps.

  Dr Wadge: We have just put a call out for our first project on the toxicokinetics of nanoparticles and that will be a collaborative project. We are very much at the early stages here. The research we have commissioned so far has been to carry out reviews: reviews of what products are available; reviews of the regulatory framework; reviews of public engagement and public attitudes to nanotechnology. We are very much at the early stages and a lot more needs to be done. I am not familiar with what MRC are doing.

  Dr Axford: I am not familiar with the absolute detail of what the specific projects are. We could come back to you with information on that.

  Chairman: Please do.

  Q31  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: Much play has been made of the OECD and EU. Where are our partners in these organisations in relation to research and in relation to the seemingly endless process of reviews that you have been telling us about this morning? Are we missing out on other people's research or are we further ahead? At the moment we do not really know how we are comparing against, let us say, the French or the Germans or the Italians or the Swiss. I am not asking for a league table but we need to know how you are behaving or how you are performing by comparison with people alongside whom you are supposed to be working in these international organisations.

  Mr Roberts: If I may say on nanotechnology generally rather than on food, my impression is that the amount being spent on EHS, environment, health and safety issues is broadly similar in three markets, Japan, Europe and the US? They are broadly of similar orders of magnitude both in terms of investment in innovation and investment in health and safety research. We can see whether there are more detailed figures and if the information I have given is not absolutely right, I will try to provide something in more detail.

  Chairman: It would be helpful if we could have some figures on that.

  Q32  Lord Haskel: Like other members of the Committee I am quite impressed with all the work that you are doing on getting the science in place and getting the research done. Meanwhile this industry has to be regulated. It seems to me that the first thing you do when you regulate is to define what it is that you are regulating. I wonder whether you could tell us how you are going to define nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in this context of regulation.

  Dr Wadge: There are very many definitions out there at the moment and we provide the BSI definition in our evidence to you. I know that the European Commission is also looking at definitions currently in relation to cosmetics but what they have agreed there will also no doubt be broadened out at some point in relation to food. From our perspective it is not so much the exact precise cut-off point in terms of size, it is far more around the properties which will have a bearing on the risk assessment; whether it is biodegradable or not, whether it is persistent and so forth, those are the key points. It is important that there is some agreed definition and that is something which is being worked up at a European level because that is where European food law is agreed.

  Q33  Lord Haskel: Is this work on agreeing a definition within Europe proceeding through the European Parliament Committee on the Environment?

  Mr Roberts: May I make two observations? First of all, I am not sure it is clear that we have to have a common definition of nanotechnology across all regulatory regimes. Clearly we need consistency; we also need to deal with the circumstances of each regime. A lot of regimes will say that products have to be safe and they have to be safe irrespective of whether they contain nanotechnology or not. If they contain nanotechnology then of course there has to be an assessment of the nanotechnology component but you do not have to define nanotechnology in legislative terms in order to achieve that. In terms of chemicals and nanotechnologies generally, the EU Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks has proposed some definitions. I can provide a copy of these but for nanomaterials it simply says any form of material that is composed of discrete functional parts, many of which have one or more dimensions of the order of 100 nanometres or less.

  Q34  Lord Haskel: So it is size.

  Mr Roberts: It is size as the starting point for consideration of risk.

  Q35  Chairman: Does that make sense toxicologically?

  Dr Wadge: I think it does as a useful starting point. If I may broaden out to the regulatory framework in relation to food, we have looked at that and asked the very specific question as to whether nanomaterials, nanotechnology, nanoparticles will fall under the current regulation or could somehow squeeze through the current regulatory framework. We received some reassurance on that point from that review. Under general food law there is a requirement on food businesses to make sure that any food which is put on the market is not unsafe. That provides a general level of safety. Then there are some specific pieces of legislation relating to novel foods, food additives and food contact materials. The food additives regulations have recently been amended so that where an existing food additive is produced through nanotechnology it would have to be assessed by EFSA for its safety, so it would have to go through some independent assessment. Similar proposals are currently underway and we are supporting those for the novel foods and food ingredients regulations, also for food contact materials. There is a sense that the existing regulation, once it has been strengthened to capture the specific requirements around altered particle sizes and changed composition and properties of nanomaterials, that they would be captured under the regulations.

  Q36  Lord Haskel: What definitive view then are you giving to the food industry if they come to ask you whether to label something as a nanomaterial or not?

  Dr Wadge: Labelling is a separate issue. The first point is whether it would be permitted and we would provide advice, as we do generally and we are in discussion regularly with the food industry about products, about whether they fall within certain requirements of novel food legislation and so forth. If we felt that it was a novel property or a new size that was being produced, then our advice would be that it would need to be submitted for pre-market approval under the novel food regulations or food additive regulations.

  Q37  Lord Crickhowell: What measures are currently in place to allow the Government to monitor the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector?

  Dr Wadge: That is something that is being considered at the moment. Obviously if we are starting from a point where there is not very much on the market in the UK we need to look at what our role might and should be in relation to monitoring the use of that technology. There are proposals for the European Commission to produce a European register of nanotechnologies in relation to food and we also have the option of producing something within the UK. Our current thinking is that it would make sense to work alongside the Commission to make sure we are familiar with what they are doing and to see whether we then need to add a further register within the UK. In terms of really understanding what is happening in the market, a register clearly could be very useful. However, our experience has been that as useful for us certainly is the regular dialogue that we have with all parts of the food industry about the technologies that they are developing, the products they are developing and how they fit within the regulatory framework. I have to say that a register might have some benefit in terms of actually dispelling some of the myths which are currently around that somehow nanotechnologies are being widely used in food currently on the market in the UK because those are some of the suggestions I have read in some articles. So a register might be helpful in terms of dispelling myths in that way and setting straight what products really are being used and not being used.

  Q38  Lord Crickhowell: At one point in your answer I thought I was going to sum up as "There are no measures currently proposed" but you actually then said "We have our usual ongoing discussions with the food industry and they are really the existing measures". However, in your evidence you did say that you were seriously considering a register. If you did have it, how do you think it would work?

  Dr Wadge: It is still very early stages and we are still thinking that through and we want to see what the proposals are from the Commission. I have to say that it is not something we have done in any other field and we need to think through the benefits of that. We do not, for example, have a register of GM technologies that are used, a register of other different types of technologies which are used in food. We would need to think carefully about what the benefit of putting that effort in to a specific area such as nanotechnology might be and that is something we are considering.

  Q39  Lord Crickhowell: Defra has a voluntary reporting scheme. How successful do think that has been?

  Mr Roberts: It has not been terribly successful. It has only generated a dozen or so responses in the first two years. We are examining how we can make that more successful. There is a challenge here between industry's desire for confidentiality of new developments and our interest in knowing what they are doing.

26   "To date the MRC has made five awards totalling approximately £3 million from response (not directed) mode funding. There is an open call and the submission of further proposals is being encouraged. Details are included in the additional written evidence provided by DIUS". 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