Remember StarLink corn? The dawn of irradiated meat? Most recently, carbon monoxide-packed ground beef? Consumers in this country are probably more willing to risk a little E. coli in some fresh, organic spinach than to swallow any arguments that some leading-edge scientific technology can make their food better.
The food industry has learned some technologies can become public relations nightmares regardless of their apparent potential benefits. Perceived dangers often outweigh perceived benefits no matter what the reality.
We're standing on a precipice now, probably similar to one faced at some point by pioneers and proponents of those technologies I mentioned in my first paragraph. As harmless or even helpful as those scientific advances were, somebody acted a little too hastily or they wouldn't be enshrined in the dubious Food Scare Hall of Fame.
Nanotechnology is changing how a lot of things will be produced in the future. The ability to build ingredients and food products atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule inevitably will lead to some amazing advances in the things we eat. But the food industry must tread carefully of there will be another plaque in that hall of shame.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about nanotechnology is that many things, even elements, on the nano scale behave differently than they do at their normal size. Therein lies much of the potential but also the danger.
In this issue, we take three looks at this emerging, incredible technology: in terms of ingredients, plant operations/packaging and regulatory. As you'll see in these stories, the potential is great. What you won't see in these stories is a lot of food processors offering opinions. It's been widely reported that the top food companies around the world are investigating nanotechnology, even investing in its research. But until some clarity emerges, they'd like to remain anonymous … or at least unquoted.
Keeping out of the media, even Food Processing, may be wise. But staying out of the debate is not. The leaders in this industry need to collectively and convincingly research the daylights out of this technology, frankly and fairly assess the benefits and the risks, if there are any, and take a unified stand. Then start informing the public - way before the first nanotech-built foods reach the market (maybe we're already too late).
The public's response will likely dictate the next step. Launch the foods with abandon? Provide labeling that allows for informed choices? Or abandon the idea like so much horsemeat?
Even the FDA seems a little reluctant. Nano-scale food chemicals today escape regulatory oversight if they have been approved at the micro- or macro-scale. It's also said the FDA regulates products, not technology. But with more complex products emerging on the nanotechnology platform, the FDA faces an increasing challenge to regulate this rapidly growing industry.
Nano-engineered materials may bring about cheaper, cleaner and more precise delivery of nutrients in food products. Or some of the materials may be so small the body might clear them too soon to be effective and others may even cause reactions. Still others might accumulate in vital organs and create toxicity.
There's a lot on the table in terms of both risks and benefits. But the biggest risk is the public trust. Maybe I'm naïve, but I believe that given conclusive and convincing research and a fair airing of the issues, the public will make the right choice.
In the end, they always get to make the choice.