A new report published today by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) on nanotechnology and its potential future applications in relation to food and food packaging makes a series of recommendations to ensure that consumers' safety is protected in relation to developments in this area. 'The Relevance for Food Safety of Applications of Nanotechnology in the Food and Feed Industries' outlines the current and potential uses of nanotechnology and the possible implications for the safety of food. It identifies potential benefits for both consumers and manufacturers from nanotechnology, which include extending the shelf-life of products, as well as enhancing taste and texture characteristics of food. However, it cautions that little is currently known about the possible effects in the food chain and there are recognised gaps in our knowledge base. There is therefore a need to ensure that regulatory (or legislative) controls are adequate to safeguard human health. Nanotechnology is expected to offer immense potential for future product development and the FSAI states that whilst there are no foods currently on the Irish market that incorporate nanotechnology, policies should be devised now in advance of their arrival.
The report produced by the FSAI's Scientific Committee calls for an EU-wide centralised legislative framework to regulate the use of this technology in food and for food businesses to take primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of all foods produced with nanotechnology. In particular, it stresses the need for mandatory labelling of all food products or food packaging which employ nanotechnology, so that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions. In addition, when these products come on the Irish market, a national list of all products should be created, compiled and monitored by the FSAI. It suggests that research should urgently be undertaken to establish an assessment of possible risks in relation to nanotechnology in food.
Nanotechnology is the science of engineering materials at the nanoscale (down to 1/100,000 the width of a human hair) to create unique products. According to the FSAI, there are significant advantages associated with the development of nanotechnology in food production, but as it is a relatively new process, its adoption by the food industry should be cautious.
"Benefits include masking of taste and odours, protection of ingredients during processing and digestions, and enhanced bioavailability. For example, nanoencapsulation of fish oils (omega 3 fatty acids) for use as ingredients in breads and other foods can mask the 'fishy' taste and improve shelf-life. In addition, nanotechnology has a role in development of "intelligent" food packaging that will provide a greater degree of traceability of products. For example, nano-structured metal films and coatings can strengthen bottles and other plastic wrapping material and incorporation of nanosenors into food packaging material will allow for the detection of contaminants such as harmful bacteria in foods and their surrounding environment," says Mr Alan Reilly, Deputy Chief Executive, FSAI.
Foods containing nano materials are available on the global market mainly through internet trading. Only a small number have been commercialised, mainly in countries outside the EU, although it is anticipated that this market will be worth approximately €15 billion by 2010. Regulatory controls on such products for personal use are recognised to be deficient and the FSAI and other food safety bodies in Europe do not have full enforcement powers in relation to them although EU legislation is being considered.
Mr Reilly, FSAI acknowledges that this is a novel and innovative development in food production and food packaging techniques and is certain to be an area of great potential for the food industry in the future.
"Nanotechnology will have a major impact on food innovation over the coming decades, with many new applications foreseen in the agrifood sector for the benefit of consumers and the environment. That places a degree of urgency on having clear policies in place now before its widespread entry to the marketplace. While offering many benefits to manufacturers and consumers, the application of nanotechnology in the food industry may present new challenges in terms of safety and regulation to ensure that consumers are fully protected. Risk benefit analysis needs to be carried out and used to underpin food safety controls and the regulatory framework."
"Our role will be to assess each application of nanotechnology within food and food packaging on a case by case basis, until a standardised approach is developed within the EU for the assessment of the possible risks of nanoparticles", he concluded.
The FSAI would also like to see standardised risk assessments put in place across the board whereby food businesses employing this technology are obliged to conduct monitoring processes and should be held legally accountable on all stages of production.