Nanotech in Our Food: Should We Be Afraid?

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Nanotechnology involves the ability to control matter at the scale of a nanometer—one billionth of a meter. The world market for products that contain nanomaterials is expected to reach $2.6 trillion by 2015.

So says a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO): Nanotechnology: Nanomaterials Are Widely Used in Commerce, but EPA Faces Challenges in Regulating Risk. GAO-10-549, May 25, 2010:

GAO identified a variety of products that currently incorporate nanomaterials already available in commerce ... [in] food and agriculture ...The extent to which nanomaterials present a risk to human health and the environment depends on a combination of the toxicity of specific nanomaterials and the route and level of exposure to these materials. Although the body of research related to nanomaterials is growing, the current understanding of the risks posed by these materials is limited.

The effects of nanotechnology on the environment are regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), which is why this report targets recommendations to EPA.

Shouldn't some of those recommendations be directed toward FDA, the agency that regulates food safety? Maybe GAO needs to do another report?

In the meantime, the European Food Safety Authority is preoccupied with issues related to the safety of food nanotechnology:

The risk assessment framework for nanotechnology in Europe—like so much else connected to the technology—appears to be in its infancy but developing at a rapid pace ... Nano knowledge gaps have led some to call for a ban on the use of nanomaterials in food products until their safety has been fully established. One area of concern is whether nanoparticles can migrate from packaging materials into foods.

In seeking to assess nanomaterials, the food safety body repeatedly used phrases such as "specific uncertainties", "limited knowledge" and..."difficult to characterise, detect and measure" in relation to toxicokinetics and toxicology in food. Likely usage and exposure levels are also largely a mystery.

The European Food Safety Authority says that lack of knowledge means that risk assessment of risk assessments must be done on a "cautious case-by-case approach."

Last April, the European Parliament's environment committee said nanotech products should be withdrawn from the market until more is known about their safety. In June, that committee added that nanotech foods should be assessed for safety before they are approved for use and labeled.

Doesn't that sound reasonable? Let's hope it's not too late to put such constraints in place, and in the U.S., too.

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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