Voices: Food Safety

When it Comes to Food, Is Nano Next for a Definition?

One of the greatest dangers for the food industry is that consumers will develop their own conclusions about the safety of nano before the science is there.

By David Acheson of The Acheson Group

Gluten-free is now defined. GMO labeling is still controversial, but is getting more industry and regulatory attention. Is nano next?

We believe that nano, with its nanotechnology and the resulting nanomaterials, is the next big thing in foods and their packaging. But, with all the questions that remain about this evolving technology, we also believe that it is crucial that science and the industry work to ensure that the excitement of developing new uses of nanotechnology not overwhelm the research on and understanding of the effects of those nanomaterials in the body.

I’m not sure I’d call it a revolution, but there certainly is an evolution in this technology that is crossing all borders and industries, and carrying just as many questions along with it:

  • Is nanotechnology safe? How do we know?
  • Do nanomaterials pose greater risk than their larger counterparts?
  • Who should regulate nano?
  • Is there a difference between engineered and natural nanomaterials?
  • And … what does it mean to the food industry?

With estimates that the global market for nanotechnology will exceed $3 trillion by 2015, these questions are becoming exceedingly important. Unfortunately, the growth of the use of nanotechnology in products seems to be exceeding the growth of a general understanding of “nano” or the decisions on regulation – around the world.

So before we get too far into discussion, let’s take a moment to provide some definition and background.

As defined by USDA, nanotechnology is “the science of studying and producing materials and devices of nanometer size – about the size of a small molecule or individual atom.” USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture agency manages grant programs that fund nanotechnology research projects, some of which are being conducted by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) itself.

FDA is just as involved in nano, with its own explanation that: “Nanomaterials, developed using nanotechnology, are measured in nanometers – equal to about one-billionth of a meter. … These nanomaterials can have different chemical, physical or biological properties than their conventionally scaled counterpart materials used in many products regulated by FDA.”

It is important to note, however, that the agencies don’t profess to completely understand nano themselves. Rather, the FDA Fact Sheet continues, “Understanding nanotechnology remains a top FDA priority. FDA is monitoring the evolving science and has a robust research agenda to help assess the safety and effectiveness of products using nanotechnology.”

With the work they are doing in the area, both FDA and USDA are part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a U.S. government R&D initiative of 27 department and agency units with the vision of  "a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society."

However, the 27-way split in focus is now being questioned. Last year, a report was issued by The National Academies on this very topic. The report, “Research Progress on Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials,” makes a case that national nano research progress could be accelerated if a single agency were designated to direct all research efforts.

Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen, but given the numerous applications of nanotechnology, from cosmetics to bicycles to food, we believe there could be risks with the use of nanomaterials in foods that may or may not be of concern in other areas. Because nano particles are so small, I fear that they could cross cell membranes, and we have no idea what the effect of that could be.

If food were made a priority by the National Academies’ recommended “single” agency, it could be beneficial, but there is also distinct advantage in allowing the scientists who best understand an area (i.e., food scientists) to be the ones focused on it.

On the other hand, FDA is not currently viewing nano differently than other technologies. In April 2012, FDA issued a draft guidance describing the factors that manufacturers should consider when determining whether a significant change in manufacturing process – including that of nanotechnology – for a food substance already in the market affects the identity, safety of use or regulatory status of use of the food substance -- thus whether it warrants a regulatory submission to FDA.

“FDA considers food manufacturing processes that involve nanotechnology in the same manner as any other food manufacturing technology,” the guidance states. Thus, there is no specific testing required for its use. Rather, if there is no significant change in manufacturing process with the use of nanotechnology, the agency sees it as not affecting food safety.

One of the greatest dangers for the food industry is that consumers will develop their own conclusions about the safety of nano before the science is there. As we all know, once that train leaves the station, it is impossible to turn it around. So there is some sense of urgency on this one to push forward fast and better understand the science and risks behind the technology.

More from this author...

Title

2008 Annual Manufacturing Survey: Safety Main Priority, But Green Catching Up

Food safety is still the chief concern of processors, but the ‘green’ trend shot up the charts too; 77 percent see growth this year.

01/23/2008

2014 Manufacturing Trends Survey: The Swagger’s Back

Economic recovery remains anemic in much of the economy, but food processing professionals are more confident about 2014 than they’ve felt in recent years.

01/13/2014

7 Things You Should Know About The New Food Safety Law

Considered a win for consumers, the new law will have varying effects on food and beverage processors.

01/28/2011

Are Clones In The Food Supply Really A Good Idea?

The food industry should fund a forum to assess the advisability of clones in the food supply.

02/19/2008

Beef Recall Raises Tempers Over Animal Cruelty

Editor David Feder hopes this adjunct editorial about the nations biggest food recall over suspect beef and animal cruelty will make you as angry as he is.

03/05/2008

Caffeine Under Siege by the FDA

FDA investigation could be just the beginning of regulatory and litigation battles.

05/15/2013

California's Proposition 65 Applies to All Food Processors

Any food and beverage manufacturer who sells products in California can be sued.

04/09/2012

Chinese Food Safety Lapses Sign of Bigger Problems

It will be a long time before what I’m calling "the China Syndrome" ceases to be a newsworthy issue in food processing.

08/08/2007

Congress Scrambles to Pass Food Safety Legislation

As Congress has argued over health care reform, financial reform, two wars, a mortgage crisis and unemployment, amending the U.S. food safety system was put on the back burner. In Part 1 of our series on food safety in the food processing industry, we investigate the legislative issues behind food safety.

09/07/2010

Continuous Improvement in Metal Detection

Industrial metal detectors may be old technology, but greater sensitivity, fewer false rejects and ease of use are helping them maintain their relevance in food and beverage inspection.

10/09/2013

Contrite Maple Leaf Vaults to Forefront of Food Safety

After a 2008 outbreak of listeria killed 22 consumers, Maple Leaf Foods promised it would become a leader In food safety and would share any knowledge it had on the subject with other processors. In Part 3 of our series on food safety in the food processing industry, we talk about food safety best practices from a processor that has been through a processor's worst nightmare.

09/07/2010

Controlling the Pest Problem At Food and Beverage Manufacturing Plants

A food illness outbreak may not shut down a plant, but woe to the processor who fails to maintain a rigorous pest control program.

02/12/2014

Cracks in Our Food Safety Systems

A 3-Part Series on one of the most important topics facing food processors today: Food Safety.

09/07/2010

Dairy Plants Ready for Food Safety Modernization Act

With HACCP plans already in place, dairies are on top of hazard control.

05/07/2012

Detecting Foreign Matter

Advances in detection technologies are helping to make the food supply safer than ever. Plus, these machines can do other things, as well.

07/16/2007

Do you know your HACCP from your HARPC?

FDA's FSMA ruling requires food processors to create risk-based preventive control plans.

03/13/2013

Ensuring Safe Ingredients

The supply chain is in the capable hands of processors

06/02/2008

FDA Affirms Safety of BPA

Agency finally rules – negatively – on 2008 petition from Natural Resource Defense Council.

04/16/2012

FDA Paints Itself Into a Corner with FSMA

A federal judge orders the agency to issue overdue food safety rules by November … which looks unrealistic.

08/14/2013

Floor to Ceiling Problems Cause Product Recalls

Recent product recalls have pointed a liability-filled finger at problems with floors, drains, roofs and other physical pieces of the plant.

09/03/2009