Nanotechnologies and Food - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)


Dr Andrew Wadge, Dr Stephen Axford and Mr John Roberts

  Q60  Chairman: This report is pretty hard hitting in general and I wondered whether you think that the European Parliament committee is kind of over-egging it when they say, for example, the committee "Considers it highly misleading for the Commission to state, in the absence of any nanospecific provisions in Community law, that current legislation covers in principle the relevant risks relating to nanomaterials". That seems almost directly contradictory to what Dr Wadge has said a few moments ago and I could quote from other paragraphs. This is much more critical of the European regime than you appear to have been. Could you enlighten us as to whether the committee has got it wrong or whether you have got it wrong?

  Mr Roberts: If I may make one procedural point, this is a proposal from the rapporteur; it has not yet been endorsed by the committee. My understanding is that the committee is considering it today and then the European Parliament will vote on it in the next week or so. My view is that some of the statements in the report are absolutely right and some of the statements in the draft are wrong. The one you have just indicated is one I would not agree with.

  Dr Wadge: John put that extremely well. I have nothing further to add to that.

  Q61  Lord Crickhowell: I happen to chair another committee's examination of REACH's report on food so I pricked up my ears when you started talking about REACH. I think it is probable that if there need to be changes they will take quite a time. My experience of these things is that they take a long time to change right across Europe because everyone wants a say and the industries want a say. How long do you think it will take to sort out the regulatory changes to make them sensible?

  Mr Roberts: I have a lot of sympathy with that point. It is going to take four or five years for the European system to work through the issues and then for the legislative process to be completed. From the UK Government's point of view we have been urging the Commission to make fast progress on these issues. My Secretary of State did write to the Commissioner last year stressing the importance of addressing nano issues comprehensively and urgently.

  Q62  Lord Methuen: Can we go back to pesticides? Often these pesticides use surfactants at the nanoscale but they do not currently use engineered nanoparticles although there are products, "smart nanoscale pesticides" in development. Does Defra have a policy in place to deal with such products once they leave the research and development phase and enter the marketplace? I also include in this things like fertilisers which presumably will use the same things and things which are used by animal feedstuffs.

  Mr Roberts: I can answer that question in respect of pesticides although I am afraid I do not have the information with me today on fertilisers and feedstuffs so I would need to respond to that separately if I may. There is a European regime in place which deals with the authorisation of pesticides which operates at two levels. The active ingredient has to be agreed at the European level as having passed the tests included in the relevant annex. Secondly, individual products are approved for use in the UK and the Pesticide Safety Directorate does that on behalf of my department. The advice I have had from them is that they would regard a pesticide containing a nanomaterial as a new product requiring a specific authorisation. So if a company changed the formulation of a pesticide to include, for example, an encapsulated active ingredient instead of one in solution, then that would require a new approval and a safety case would have to be made for the use of that product before it was authorised.

  Q63  Lord Methuen: You will obviously risk assess these products. Is there sufficient information to understand fully their impact on the food chain and the environment? This goes for the other products which I mentioned.

  Mr Roberts: That question is hypothetical to an extent until we get a case because it would depend on the nature of the case. We would do the normal test that we would do and we would look at all the scientific evidence that is available. It is a system of positive approval, so they have to make the case that it is safe rather than that it can be used in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. They would have to make a case and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides would give us the scientific view about the case that had been made.

  Q64  Lord Methuen: You would get the equivalent for fertilisers presumably.

  Mr Roberts: I am afraid I am not familiar with the authorisation procedure for fertilisers so I would need to take advice.

  Q65  Lord Methuen: There must be something similar in place.

  Mr Roberts: The regime on pesticides is clearly tougher because pesticides are necessarily toxic to something. There is therefore a system of positive approval. Fertilisers generally are more benign substances so I am not sure they are tested to quite the same rigorous extent as pesticides but I will need to take advice on that and come back to you.

  Q66  Chairman: May I follow up a little bit on Lord Methuen's question? You said that the risk assessment would be done by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides.

  Mr Roberts: They would review the evidence submitted by industry.

  Q67  Chairman: Does that Committee have on it anybody who is an expert in nanotechnology?

  Mr Roberts: I will need to look at the list. To be honest, I doubt it, but it is clearly an issue we would need to look at. The issues we would need to understand would be environment and fate, how the nanomaterial moves through the environment, followed by toxicology and eco-toxicology from exposure of humans or animals or plants or eco-systems as a result of that application. If we did not have that expertise, then we would need to look elsewhere for it. We have it, for example, on the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances and if necessary we would make a link between the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances.

  Dr Wadge: There are eco-toxicologist and toxicologists on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides but as I understand it the point you are making is whether they have specific expertise in the toxicology of nanoparticles, I doubt that. It would not preclude the opportunity to bring that expertise in to those particular committees.

  Q68  Chairman: May I also ask the same question, whilst we are engaged in conversation, about the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes? If a nanofood product were to come through for approval with the UK competent authority, is there expertise in this area on that Committee?

  Dr Wadge: No is the answer. Is there access to toxicological advice? The answer is yes. There is quite a lot of history of seeking advice from the Committee on Toxicity and I have included in the evidence some of the reviews which the committees have done on nanotechnology so far and the recommendations that they are making around the risk assessments. If there were very specific points on nanotechnology that required additional expertise, we would refer that to the Committee on Toxicity and they would take advice as necessary.

  Q69  Baroness Neuberger: You have already mentioned the issue of public engagement and this being a key area. What future plans do the Government have to engage with the public, or conduct research on public perceptions on the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector? We would like to know who is going to carry it out and how it is going to be coordinated across Government.

  Dr Axford: I could give a general view. Recently, in January of this year, there was a renewed ministerial commitment on nanotechnology overall. They gave seven key commitments overall but one of those was to develop the programme of dialogue around nanotechnology involving all key players. That includes, for example, academia, industry, non-governmental organisations and of course, critically, the public. That is part and parcel of the strategy to which I alluded earlier being put forward by the ministerial committee. We therefore, through a number of mechanisms, for example DIUS are responsible for a programme of activity called the Sciencewise Programme, which is all about getting better evidence of what the public thinks or finding a way of engaging the public in a constructive way on key issues. That is a process which can be applied on nanotechnology. There have already been two major goes at talking to the public about nanotechnology within the last two or three years. When it comes to the specifics of what is actually done on food that would have to be something Andrew would be able to talk about and what would be done in relation to food. I do not know what level of detail you would like to know about the general way that Government go about some of their work in other areas.

  Q70  Baroness Neuberger: It is not particularly so much about how the Government work. We know a little bit about the general public understanding of science-type work. It is really perhaps some of the methodologies you are going to use for this actual engagement. For instance, there is very good evidence that with quite complex areas of nanotechnology, in the food sector would be a good example, things like citizens' juries may be very useful. It would be very interesting to know, given that this is part of the strategy, what Government are intending to do.

  Dr Axford: Certainly on nanotechnology as a whole and even more so on food in particular it is a little bit early to say exactly which techniques we would use. Given what we have heard this morning about the problems almost of definition, we need to know what we need to achieve through any engagement process. Are we worried about the toxicological impacts? Are we looking at the commercial benefits? Until we know where nanotechnology is exploited in the commercial sector, it is very hard to know what to talk to the public about. It is very hard to engage them at the fundamental science level where a lot of it still is. We heard earlier that a number of these technologies are still often in the lab.

  Dr Wadge: The Food Standards Agency absolutely stands ready to engage in public debate and, taking the lead from Lord Krebs who was our first chairman who really set a very high standard of public engagement on science, that is something we are very keen to follow. We do have a number of mechanisms in place. Perhaps I can talk about what we did on cloned animals a couple of years ago as an example of the type of engagement that we might do in relation to emerging technologies more generally. We commissioned work in 2007-08 which took the form of reconvened workshops. We brought members of the general public together, we had a range of experts from all different parts of the debate, talking about their work and we reconvened the group after they had gone away to think about it and they had an opportunity to ask questions.[27] It worked very well in terms of eliciting a rather broad consensus as to what the general public's concerns were. They were less concerned, interestingly, with how the technology and the science worked and their focus was much more on the why and the consequences and the benefits from the technology. That is perhaps not surprising, given what we learned from the GM debate which got very polarised. What we would want to do through citizens' juries, and we have a number of citizens' forums available which we regularly use and debate a range of issues that are topical for us, is to make sure that we are not simply finding out what the people on the extremes of public opinion think but actually what the general public feel once they have had a chance to be really informed about a technology. We do have the methodology available and we stand ready to engage in that debate.

  Q71Baroness Neuberger: You have already raised the GM issue and obviously some of that was extremely uncomfortable in many ways. Presumably one of the things you are saying therefore is that the engagement with the public will happen relatively early in order to avoid that kind of extreme view. I am not sure whether you are saying that.

  Dr Wadge: If we do not, then it seems to me then that we have failed to learn one of the key lessons. It is important that there is an engagement and recognition of the role of everybody, not just Government but food businesses a well, to engage and talk about the types of technology and make sure that there is a general understanding and acceptance of technology.

  Q72  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: This is a question which also bears on public engagement but it really arises out of the DIUS submission which very usefully brought together evidence from a number of different countries. Brazil is quite startling and of course lies outwith the three big groups that we have discussed and one meets ready-to-eat edible bioplastic coating and pallet sensors for quality control apparently aimed at increasing the quality of Brazilian wine. Then there is a statement that Brazil does not seem to have any dedicated regulatory framework for nanotechnology research. There is a big player with a lot of research and there is free trade and it is quite complex to keep out products which do not meet certain standards. Do either DIUS or Defra or the Food Standards Agency have a reaction to the Brazilian evidence?

  Mr Roberts: I am not familiar with the Brazilian situation but I can talk about the attempts at regulation of nanotechnology on the global level, if that would be helpful.

  Q73  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: That would be.

  Mr Roberts: If I may take one step back and look at chemicals, broadly speaking there are very few global rules restricting chemicals. The only ones which are restricted at the global level are 12 persistent organic pollutants which include substances like DDT and PCBs. Attempts for a broader regulatory framework for chemicals generally have not been possible to agree politically until recently. A big attempt to have a strategic approach to international chemicals management in order to deliver the WSSD, the World Summit on Sustainable Development objectives on chemicals had to be on a voluntary approach because some countries, not least the United States, opposed global regulation. The global community has attempted to regulate chemicals such as mercury for the last decade and in fact we had a breakthrough last month and there is now agreement to have international regulation of mercury emissions and that reflected a change in the approach of the United States and countries such as China and India were quite reluctant but in the end came along. In terms of nanotechnologies, we will be discussing that at the SAICM, the Strategic Approach for International Chemical Management meeting, which takes place in Geneva in May, where it has been identified as an emerging issue. We will be raising awareness there. It would be wrong to say there is scope for international global regulation of nanotechnology in the immediate term. We are trying to raise awareness of the issues in countries, not only those producing nanotechnologies but those which may also import products containing nanotechnologies and therefore have to deal with waste streams that may require specialist handling; at least raise awareness, spread the science and begin to get cooperative action going.

  Q74  Baroness Neuberger: May I move on to the question of labelling and consumer information? Again this is mainly for the FSA. You said in one of your additional reports that there is a need for consultation on declaring the use of nanoparticle ingredients or additives in food products but in your main evidence you say that you do not have information on whether UK consumers would value information on the use of nanotechnologies in food and what sort of information would meet the necessary criteria. What are the Government doing to obtain the information about what the public feels about that?

  Dr Wadge: We need to address that through the deliberative research with consumer forums, once we are a bit closer to products being on the market. At the moment it is a little bit difficult to do it in a vacuum in a way. Consumers need to know what specific products we are talking about that are now about to come onto the market and how that might benefit them or benefit others. Certainly that is how we would carry out that research, through our citizens' forums, to really gauge a sense of what information they would find useful and whether particular types of labelling would actually be helpful to them. At this stage, it is still a little bit too early to say.

  Q75  Baroness Neuberger: I completely take the argument about it being early and therefore very hypothetical, but I just wonder whether there is not an argument for at least beginning that discussion, simply to make it clear that there will be transparency in this area.

  Dr Wadge: Certainly we will be starting the process of talking about nanotechnologies with our citizens' forums in the autumn this year. I can ensure, given this conversation, that the question of labelling and information is included in those sorts of discussions.

  Q76  Lord Methuen: Mine is an unrelated question. Mr Roberts mentioned these 19 tasks of priority research projects and five taskforces and he also mentioned 14 nanomaterials which were under investigation. It would be useful if we had details of what those were.

  Mr Roberts: Certainly.

  Q77  Earl of Selborne: I want to go back to the process of public dialogue, public engagement. I think everyone recognises and admits that the GM debate was a bit of a disaster quite frankly, because of the polarisation to which you referred. What are the lessons learned from the GM debate, even if they are only negative ones, as to how this debate should be structured?

  Dr Wadge: That is a very big question, is it not? I am not sure that necessarily everything from the GM debate translates and transfers to this particular issue. Having said that, there clearly are some very important lessons and the first is to engage with the public at an early stage to ensure that a range of debate and dialogue takes place around the types of technologies which are being used or might be used in producing food and what the implications are for consumers of those different types of technology. Early engagement and bringing together scientists and the general public and groups such as the Food Standards Agency can play a facilitative role in encouraging that sort of debate to raise awareness to begin with of the sorts of issues and then specifically to tease out some of the very specific questions around acceptability and requirements for information and labelling and so forth.

  Q78  Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: Perhaps I should declare an interest as Chairman of the Nuclear Industries Association. A consultation was conducted by DTI which subsequently fell in the courts and they had to undergo the same process in a rather modified fashion to secure acceptability. Really what I just want to say is that the GM consultation was not the classic example we would want to follow but there are other failures as well. There is the potential pitfall of the litigious opponents and some of the people who are already on the fringes of the debate, having a higher bar of standards, wanting to pull more things into nanotechnology than perhaps the current definitions will allow. These are the kinds of people who might well be standing in the wings with lawyers ready to require judicial review. I merely make this additional cautionary point that the unfortunate experience of GM is as nothing compared to some of the subsequent failures of the Government's consultative processes which were expensive both in time and money to correct.

  Dr Wadge: Yes.

  Q79  Lord Crickhowell: As we approach the end of the session, I am extremely grateful that I have a very much clearer idea of what the Food Standards Agency and Defra are about and what is going on. The big gap I have at the end of this session is in understanding what the Government are really doing to close the big gaps we have in scientific knowledge. I have a big gap in my impression of what drive is being put, what money is being put behind the research programmes, behind what the universities are doing. I just do not have an impression that there is as much effort going in to really stimulating the research that is needed as I think there should be.

  Dr Axford: We can respond to that in a broad sense. Looking at nanotechnology overall, setting aside the food specific for the moment, across the research councils there is something like £50 million across all programmes generally in the area of nanotechnology and a further £50 million in the specific cross-council programme on nanotechnology projects. There is actually a lot of investment going on in the broad area of nanotechnology.

  Lord Crickhowell: May I ask then—I really do have a black hole here—what is actually going on here? I am afraid you have not given me any clear picture at all in your answers to questions; even that last answer does not. We really do need a pretty detailed report from your department as to what they are doing, what the programmes are, what money is being spent where and what you hope to achieve by it.

  Chairman: Particularly in the area of risk assessment which is what concerns us rather than, say, development of new TV screens or something like that. If you could help us with a bit more detailed information on that area.

27   "This answer is not entirely correct. The Participants were in fact presented with information about the technology by the research company and not by a range of outside experts". Back

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