Legislation urged for nano based materials
The Bern-based TA-SWISS, which describes its role as imparting knowledge that is as independent as possible on the repercussions, opportunities and risks of new technologies, has conducted a study into nano packaging materials and food additives already in use in Switzerland.
The report, Nanotechnology in the food sector, concludes that in view of the international flows of goods, global or at least Europe-wide regulation is required in relation to nano-particles in packaging and products.
Lack of awareness
The project team, led by Martin Möller, a researcher with the Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Germany, maintains that the technology has suffered from a lack of public understanding and consumer concerns over the safety of some of its applications.
They claim action is thus needed from manufacturers and retailers to help ease the sense of mistrust among the public: “Manufacturers, processors and dealers of foods and food packaging with nanocomponents could, for instance, follow industry-specific codes of conduct,” argue the researchers.
Moreover, the research team calls for the evaluation of existing systems for traceability in food production to check for their applicability to nanomaterials, and they also claim that the effects of nanoparticles over the whole life cycle of a product, from manufacture to disposal needs to be studied further.
Nanotechnology uses tiny particles, measuring one billionth of a metre. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres (nm) wide, a red blood cell 7,000 nm wide, and a water molecule 0.3 nm wide.
Estimates of the future market for nanotechnology range from €750bn to €2,000bn by 2015 according to the European Commission, with predictions for the number of new jobs created by the industry standing at around 10 million.
In the packaging industry, the use of nanoparticles is at a more advanced stage than it is in food production.
In the form of composite films, wafer-thin nano coatings of aluminium, for example, or aluminium oxide protect snacks or chocolate bars packed in them from oxygen, water vapour and flavour substances. Nanoparticles are also used in polyethylene terephthalate PET bottles, to improve the blocking properties of bottles against oxygen in particular.
The TA-Swiss report also clarifies where the potential of nanotechnology lies in the packaging industry, to what extent there is a possibility of food picking up nanoparticles from direct contact with packaging modified by nanotechnology, and what dangers might arise for consumers as a result.
Migration into food
The researchers found that the question over whether nanoparticles can pass from packaging materials into food is primarily dependent on how the nanolayer was applied:
“In general terms, it must be said that in the case of laminated films with a nano-layer silicate plastic grid, it is least likely that nanoparticles will be leached out of the packaging.
“But where the food is in direct contact with the nano-layer, there is a greater risk that it will pick up nanoparticles from it.”
The team added that a study conducted by the Öko-Institut specifically for the TA-Swiss nanotechnology report compared C02 emissions during the product cycles of aluminium cans, disposable glass bottles and nano-technologically optimised disposable PET bottles, with the result showing that the nano-PET bottles have a more beneficial CO2 balance:
“In manufacture, transport and recycling, nano-PET bottles generate about one-third fewer greenhouse gases than aluminium containers and about 60 per cent fewer than disposable glass bottles,” according to the findings.