The use of nanotechnology in food production is becoming more commonplace in many countries, including the United States. At a November 2011 workshop in London, however, an independent advisory panel to the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency demanded public debate and regulation of nanomaterials in foods (read Use of Nano-Materials in Foods Must Be Openly Debated, Warn Experts).
Nanotechnology allows the manipulation of materials on the scale of atoms, measured in nanometers (one billionth of a meter). The resulting nanoparticles are now being used in everything from appliances to cosmetics to clothing, yet the public knows little about them or the risks they may pose to human health.
To many food technologists, nanoparticles hold the potential to improve food safety, quality, and shelf life. Many companies are already using them in agriculture, food processing, food packaging, and supplements, yet often the food companies themselves don’t even know whether they’re using nano-based materials or not!
To help companies learn about the topic, the California-based nonprofit environmental and social responsibility organization As You Sow has issued a Sourcing Framework for Food and Food Packaging Products Containing Nanomaterials, in which it says:
“The risks and benefits of this emerging technology are still being discovered, yet the development, use and manufacturing of nanomaterials are being conducted with little transparency and inadequate regulatory oversight. This is particularly concerning to the food industry where human exposure is virtually guaranteed. The food industry is reported to be extensively researching and developing the use of nanomaterials; however, there is little known about the extent to which nanomaterials are used in food products, processing or packaging.”
As You Sow is conducting a survey of nanotechnology’s use in food, with plans to share results in mid-2012. Meanwhile, findNano is a free Apple app that lists products containing nanotech.
Companies using this technology should be required to be more informed and more transparent. Nanotechnology is technical, and difficult to grasp intuitively. The public must demand that its risks and benefits be formally assessed for each new application. For an excellent series of reports by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrew Schneider, about the health risks of nanotech, read the article Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow.