Big-name retailers like Tesco and Carrefour should help prepare consumers for innovations in the food sector, according to the top civil servant in the EU executive's directorate for health and consumer protection.
As part of a broader effort to improve the state of the food business, the EU executive also announced that it would establish a Food Supply Chain Forum. The forum will bring civil society, regulators, and businesses from across the food chain together to discuss the state of the food retail sector.
The debate on applications of nanotechnology has been climbing up the political agenda in recent years, with incoming Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik - a former EU science commissioner - saying recently that existing chemicals legislation was not sufficient to regulate nanomaterials.
There have also been reports that companies selling products which contain nanotechnology are deliberately playing down or hiding this fact, fearing a consumer backlash (EurActiv 15/06/09).
Robert Madelin, director-general of the European Commission's DG Sanco, told a meeting of retailers that supermarkets needed to be upfront in explaining the risks and benefits of advances such as nanotechnology.
Pointing to the genetically-modified (GM) food fiasco of the 1990s, he said supermarkets had "followed" the crowd rather than taking the lead.
"On GM, they [retailers] followed their customers and took products off the shelves. On other technologies, they could lead and prepare the debate. They have a role in spurring innovation," he told a meeting of the European Retail Round Table in Brussels on Monday (18 January).
Madelin said powerful retailers should try to take a long-term view and ask themselves what their role is in the context of the EU 2020 strategy.
He said it would be futile to encourage innovation in Europe unless retailers were playing their part in engaging with the public. There would, he suggested, be no point in developing new products if the market is closed to selling them.
"The average citizen is not science-averse," he said, but they want to know what the benefits are and how new technologies fit with their values. However, Madelin said big companies are "failing to tell a story consumers can hear".
Nano on the agenda at new Food Forum
"If you look at the nano debate, after three years of encouraging retail to be more upfront, the industry is still keeping their secrets," he said.
The forthcoming Food Supply Chain Forum - which will begin work by Easter - could look at the role of retail in innovation, Madelin revealed.
"It would be extremely helpful if business leaders engaged beyond their comfort zone. Retailers should ask themselves what they do to help innovation," he said.
However, senior retail industry figures were hesitant to commit themselves to any political agenda, preferring to adopt a neutral stance unless it affects their balance sheets.