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

Global Meat And Feed Industry Executives Discuss Food Safety At Asian Show

Food safety and security issues were discussed at VIV Asia, a trade show for the international feed to meat industry, held March 13-15 in Bangkok.

04/18/2013

The 4 Secrets to an Effective FSMS

Four components are essential for an effective Food Safety Management System. Learn what they are and how to identify them.

04/15/2013

Refuting Myths About Carrageenan

Recent resurrection of a link between carrageenan and poligeenan (and the latter's connection to cancer) are unfounded.

04/04/2013

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

Food Safety Regulatory Outlook for 2013

Similar to 2012, the FDA will continue to evolve and enact the Food Safety Modernization Act.

01/03/2013

Where Are We Headed With Supply Chain Traceability And Food Safety?

As more consumers want transparency with their food ingredients, the food and beverage industry must wrestle with what that means for the supply chain and the costs passed back on to consumers.

12/19/2012

How To Prepare for a GFSI Audit

This is the shape of things to come, so pick a standard and commit your company.

11/26/2012

How Concerned Are Consumers about Food Safety?

Shoppers are only somewhat or slightly concerned about the safety of the U.S. food supply despite frequent food safety outbreaks, reports NPD.

10/31/2012

Focus on Food Safety: China's New Food Safety Initiatives

Five-year plan lacks specific regulations but shows signs of progress.

08/02/2012

Inside the Latest U.S. Case of Mad Cow Disease

The April discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy only proves safeguards are working.

05/29/2012

Human Behavior's Role in Food Safety

Looking out for those who misunderstand their training but have confidence in their knowledge.

05/21/2012

Food Safety Case History: Keeping on Eye on the Cranberries

Optical sorter helps L&S Cranberry pack quality fruit with no foreign material.

05/14/2012

Improved Metal Detection Technologies Play a Role in New Food Safety Systems

Experts advise a comprehensive approach to metal detection for keeping solid, foreign material out of foods.

05/09/2012

Dairy Plants Ready for Food Safety Modernization Act

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

05/07/2012

FDA Affirms Safety of BPA

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

04/16/2012

Food Safety Starts on the Ground Floor

Proper flooring provides no safe harbor for bacteria.

04/10/2012

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

The FDA's Food Safety Outlook for 2012

The FDA will be consumed with implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, with July as a particularly important month.

01/24/2012

Focus on Food Safety: A Busy Year for Food Safety

Introducing a monthly column devoted to everyone's No. 1 concern.

01/05/2012

How Advance Planning Can Help Food Processors During A Food Safety Crisis

How a food processing company responds to a product contamination or recall crisis within the first 24 hours can define itself to its customers and consumers. A crisis communications manager explains how advance planning can make a difference.

12/12/2011