Safety authority urges research into nanotechnology's use in food sector


RESEARCH INTO the risks of using nanotechnology in food is "urgently" needed before products containing food manipulating particles hit the Irish market, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has said.

Little is known about the effects on the human body or the environment of this emerging food science and regulation of the industry is "deficient" a new FSAI report has found.

Food nanotechnology involves the use of tiny particles (nanoparticles) which can be 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, to modify processed food. Nanoparticles can be used to change the taste and texture of food, extend its shelf-life, increase absorption of nutrients or kill harmful bacteria.

No foods currently on the Irish market use nanotechnology, the FSAI said, but "policies should be devised now in advance of their arrival".

The technology is used in some non-EU countries. In the US a nanoparticle product marketed as "OilFresh" is being used by restaurants to extend the life of deep frying oil, while giving crispier food.

Nanotechnology can also be used in food containers creating "active packaging" which could kill bacteria or indicate when food has gone off or is under threat from contaminants.

While nanoparticles are being used commercially, and it is anticipated the industry will be worth €15 billion globally in less than two years' time, little is known about its effects on human and animal health or on the environment, the FSAI said.

"Evidence is accumulating that engineered nanoparticles can cross natural barriers within the body, although the health implications of this, if any, are as yet unclear," the report said.

Nanotechnology may not only pose a risk to those eating processed food, but to workers who might inhale nanoparticles during the production stage.

There is also concern about the environmental risks of disposal of food or packaging containing nanoparticles, particularly in relation to how they might react with other substances or enter the food chain indirectly.

The report notes that, given the public response to genetically modified (GM) technology, the use of nanotechnology in food is likely to be contentious and the "safety of consumers exposed to nanoparticles through food must be assured".

The report calls for a EU-wide legislative framework to regulate the use of nanotechnology in food, including the introduction of mandatory labelling. A national list of products containing nanoparticles should be compiled and monitored by the FSAI.

"There are significant advantages associated with the development of nanotechnology in food production but as it is a relatively new process, its adoption by the food industry should be cautious," the FSAI said.