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Nanotechnology in food: What’s the big idea?

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 26-Jul-2010
Last updated on 28-Jul-2010 at 17:56 GMT

Let's get talking about nanotech. The science of the very small has filled the food industry with big ideas – but industry is torn on how to present nanotechnology to consumers, stalling product development.

More effective methods of detecting foodborne pathogens, better delivery of micronutrients, longer shelf life – these are all great potential benefits – but research shows that consumers still need a lot of convincing that nanotechnology is safe for food use, and so does industry. On the consumer side, there is a certain faction that may never be persuaded.

However, as the science emerges on the safety of nano, the food industry should at the very least be talking about it. Instead, many major food companies are going quiet, preferring to take a wait-and-see approach. If the silence continues, nanotechnology may yet fail to deliver its benefits to the food industry, and to consumers.

Learning from GMOs

At IFT’s nanoscience conference last week, major industry players discussed how to avoid a rerun of the GMO debacle with consumers – with some saying that one solution could be to say nothing about introducing nanotechnology in foods and to do it anyway.

It is hard to imagine a bigger mistake.

Right now, consumer fears over nano could be contained to a storm in a (teeny-weeny) teacup, but if there is even a whiff of industry deception, consumer concern would erupt into a full-blown tempest. And as we learned from GMOs, that’s a storm that’s nearly impossible to calm.

There are obvious parallels between nanotechnology and the genetic modification of food crops, not least the fact that GM promised a raft of potential benefits through new scientific methods, and consumers, most of whom had little understanding of the science, were wary of that promise.

Ever since the food industry started exploring the possibilities for nanotechnology, it has been saying that we need to learn from GM. On the whole however, the areas that it has been willing to learn from have been narrow. GMOs were commercialized with a definite financial focus, a factor that certainly contributed to their demonization.

Tackling consumer concerns

With this experience in mind, nanotech advocates have frequently said that nano should first concentrate on benefits for the consumer. Yes, but which ones? And will they be persuasive enough? At the moment everyone is tiptoeing around the issue, unwilling to risk a tarnished reputation by talking about nano too soon.

But while the debate rages about whether consumers would be more receptive to nano benefits for health or for safety, I would argue that the best thing for industry is to get in early and publicize the debate. Let’s get consumers involved. The biggest lesson that we can learn from GMOs is that it is difficult to restore confidence once it is lost, so let’s try to preempt consumers’ concerns.

Companies should continue researching the safety as well as the potential of nanotechnology – and be open about it – so that there is no suggestion further down the line that findings or product development were hidden.

And how about setting up a publically available register of nanomaterials in use in the food industry? The closest we have right now is from The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, run by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It currently lists 93 manufacturer-identified food or food-related products on the global market, mostly in the packaging category.

There are still huge hurdles – just defining nano is a minefield – but let’s keep the research dollars flowing, and keep the discussion open and free. Burying the issue will only result in intensified consumer backlash.

Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.

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