A new report has accused food manufacturers of a lack of openness over nanotechnology. Nick Hughes asks why secrecy is such a big deal for nanotech R&D
Fruit that tells you when it's ripe to eat and packaging that's super thin yet also super strong may sound like ideas from a grocery-themed episode of Star Trek. But these innovations could be less than five years from reality thanks to the application of nanotechnology.
Last week, the House of Lords science and technology committee released a report of its Nanotechnologies and Food inquiry, which concluded that nanotechnology the manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular scale has the potential to deliver significant benefits to consumers.
Yet the report also raised concern over the lack of openness by the food industry about its research into the use of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials.
When you consider the potential benefits of nano foods in areas such as sustainability and health, it seems odd that manufacturers are reticent to talk up their research. So why the secrecy?
Report author Lord Krebs believes the food industry is worried about consumer reaction to new technologies.
And who can blame it, with research carried out last year by the FSA finding that "the overall tone of public attitudes towards novel food technologies is one of wariness, uncertainty, and sometimes outright negativity".
The food industry feels nervous about a consumer backlash, particularly in the light of previous concerns over GM, according to Krebs. "There's a feeling this could be GM all over again," he says, but admits a lack of transparency on the part of manufacturers could foster fear among the public.
"A lack of information creates a communication vacuum, and this is likely to be filled by those who are against the use of nanotechnology," says Krebs. "It's better for the industry to be on the front foot. A proactive approach seems more likely to carry the public along than one that involves hunkering down in the trenches until the very last minute."
The advantage nanotechnology has over GM, he says, is that it benefits the consumer by potentially reducing food waste or delivering health benefits, for example while GM essentially helped the producer. However, the precise nature of the benefits remain sketchy, says Food & Drink Federation communications director Julian Hunt. This is why manufacturers are reluctant to speak out on what can be achievable through nanotechnology,
"The lack of noise isn't necessarily secrecy, it just shows how far away we are from making these things a reality," says Hunt. "The industry will face just as much criticism for talking up products and then not delivering them."
Nanomaterials for use in manufacturing such as anti-stick surfaces or packaging are likely to reach the UK market before new food products.
The most optimistic estimates suggest the first applications in the UK food sector are at least three years away. The FDF says it knows of no food products on the market produced by its member companies that contain, are packaged in, or produced using nanotechnologies. When they do reach foods, we may see new flavours and textures, and healthier products with reduced salt, fat or sugar content, or increased vitamin and nutrient content.
Technical challenges are not the only hurdles nano foods must overcome before establishing themselves as part of the food chain. There's the thorny issue of competition. How can you achieve openness while protecting the commercial advantage of manufacturers looking to scoop a share of what a 2007 report from Cientifica predicted would become a $5.8bn global market by 2012?
Companies known to be spending heavily on nanotechnology R&D, such as Unilever and Kraft, are understandably coy when it comes to discussing their research for fear of jeopardising any competitive edge. Among the recommendations of the House of Lords report was for the FSA to develop a confidential database of information about nanomaterials being researched within the UK food sector to aid the prioritisation of appropriate research. The plan is for participation in the database to be mandatory, but Hunt suggests it would be difficult to institute in the UK alone. "It's very hard to do things like that on a UK-only level when developments are happening everywhere," he says.
The need for any such database was rejected by Unilever R&D director Charles-Francois Gaudefroy.
"All nanomaterials are novel foods ingredients, which already need to go through a thorough pre-market approval process. The recommendation is therefore in our view doubling up with existing regulations and processes."
The EU regulatory framework should be adequate to ensure proper authorisation of nanomaterials, and that new applications of nanotechnologies would fall within the EU's Novel Foods Regulation, but Krebs says a potential problem is the absence of a robust definition of a nanomaterial. The current one focuses on size alone matter that measures less than 100 nanometres (nm) in any dimension is defined as a nanomaterial but Krebs claims that, by focusing purely on size, the regulation disregards the functionality of nanomaterials.
"Toxologists we interviewed said there is no magic about 100nm," he says. "If there is a change in property of the substance at its nano scale, the toxicological effects of that might begin at 200nm, so we felt the regulators should also focus on putative effects on the human body."
Putting regulation and public opinion to one side, the biggest hurdle nanofoods may have to overcome is proving their safety for human consumption.
"There are still substantial gaps in the basic science of how nanoparticles move around the body and what their potential toxicological effects might be. Without that science the regulator would not be in a position to authorise that product," says Krebs.
The House of Lords report identified behaviours of nanomaterials in the gut, effects on the human foetus and subsequent movements of nanomaterials within the body as some of the main areas requiring extensive further research, and called on the government to commit more funding to basic toxicological studies, with the FSA taking a lead.
The agency says it is "working with other research funding bodies to coordinate the necessary research". But until such work is carried out and the safety of nanomaterials is guaranteed, public scepticism will surely exist and intelligent vegetables and indestructible sweet wrappers will, for the time being at least, remain in the realms of science fiction.