Nanotechnology

Policy Position

FDF supports the use of nanotechnology as a general enabling technology with widespread industrial applications, including potential uses in food processing, food safety and packaging. Application of nanotechnologies in the food industry is at an early stage and to the best of our knowledge the UK food and drink manufacturing industry does not currently use engineered nanomaterials in food products, their processing or their packaging.

As an innovative and progressive industry, the food industry is interested in research and new developments based on the use of scientific understanding, including the application of nanotechnologies. There are potentially useful applications for the food and drink industry, such as in nanoencapsulation of flavours, vitamins and minerals; and in food packaging. This could improve keeping qualities and/or indicate any microbiological deterioration of food products.

There is a need to distinguish between natural occurrence of nanoparticles such as in protein, fat or sugar molecules, or their presence through conventional processing techniques, such as milling, homogenising and emulsifying and where particle size has been deliberately engineered to behave differently to its conventional counterpart. We believe there is a need for adequate safety assessment where the use of nanotechnology gives rise to changes in existing products or processes, such that any risks to human health or the environment may need to be re-evaluated.

FDF welcomes the recognition given to the importance of nanotechnology by HM Government and the inter-departmental nature of its policy approach. Consideration of the potential use of nanotechnologies in food and drink manufacture, and how it should be regulated, is currently part of a wider debate on the application of new technologies from the scientific, societal and economic viewpoints.

FDF is closely following and actively involved in national, EU and international activities in nanotechnologies and its implications for the food industry including monitoring work underway by both the Commission’s independent Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on safety evaluations and closing knowledge gaps.

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Background

Nanotechnology is an enabling technology with potential applications across a wide range of industrial and consumer products. It involves the manufacturing and utilising of the special properties of material at nanoscale (the nanoscale is regarded to range from about 1 nanometre (nm) to 100 nanometres).

The very different activities and applications of the materials that exert special properties at the nanoscale are more accurately described as “nanotechnologies”.

The debate about the use of nanotechnologies has been growing in importance for several years and is now a key policy issue across Government, and at EU and international level.

In June 2003, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering were asked to carry out an independent study into current and future nanotechnology developments. This Royal Society Report was published in July 2004 and made a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring the responsible development and management of nanotechnologies.

The UK Government published its response in February 2005. This included a commitment for relevant departments to review existing regulations to identify any gaps to ensure that human health and the environment are adequately protected from any potential risks from nanotechnologies.

As part of this exercise, Food Standards Agency (FSA) carried out a review of existing food and feed regulations in relation to the use of nanotechnologies. The FSA report (including FDF's response) (pdf) was issued for public consultation and it concluded on the basis of current information that the uses of nanotechnologies could potentially affect food areas which are covered by current food regulations. Any food areas affected would come under a form of approval process before being permitted for use.

FDF is of the view that direct applications of nanotechnologies in food appear limited. There is some interest at ingredient level, particularly in delivery systems, and in potential indirect applications in, for example, packaging, processing applications and food safety.

The already very comprehensive framework of food regulations is being adapted to ensure that they take account of any applications of nanotechnologies in food and drink products. This also covers their processing and packaging, according to new scientific developments and any evidence of the safety of the product or process concerned.

There is general recognition that gaps remain in our knowledge of emerging nanotechnologies and engineered nanomaterials. Considerable research is underway to assess their safety at all stages; from manufacture and exposure in the work place to their eventual fate in the environment.

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Last reviewed: 16 Dec 2014