The food industry will only reap the benefits of nanotechnology if issues related to safety are addressed and companies are more open about what they are doing. This ethical question is addressed by Nature Nanotechology in its February Editorial (5, 89; 2010), an excerpt from which follows.
So far nanotechnology has largely escaped becoming ‘the next GM’ — which is shorthand for the rejection of genetically modified food by the public in the UK and elsewhere in Europe — but this has largely been because many applications of nanotechnology have been inherently non-controversial: who can object to stain-free trousers or faster computers? The popularity of products such as the iPod Nano has also helped with public acceptance of nanotechnology, even to the extent that distinctly non-nano products — such as the Tata Nano car — have sought to exploit the ‘nano’ brand. However, the introduction of nanomaterials into food and food packaging is a completely different matter, involving important factors that do not arise when developing new materials or electronic devices.
Nanotechnology could benefit the food industry and consumers in two main ways: by using engineered nanomaterials to reduce the amount of fat, salt or sugar in food without changing its taste; and by developing new packaging that keeps food fresher for longer and, possibly, tells the consumer if the food inside has gone off. Improved packaging might also allow more foods to be stored under ambient conditions, rather than in fridges and freezers, thus reducing energy consumption.
However, as made clear in a new report by the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee, there are relatively few foods (probably just two products) containing engineered nanomaterials on the market at present. There could be as many as 400 companies around the world are researching possible applications of nanotechnology in food and food packaging — and many of them don’t want their customers to know about this. The House of Lords’ committee says that it is “regrettable” that “far from being transparent about its activities, the food industry was refusing to talk about its work in this area.” While acknowledging that the food industry is afraid that the public might react negatively to food and food packaging that contains engineered nanomaterials, the Lords’ committee argues that “this is exactly the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction which it is trying to avert.”
Nanotechnology has much to offer to the food industry, and this report has much to offer food manufacturers, government, funding agencies and regulators.