Lords criticise nanotech secrecy in food industry

The food industry risks a public backlash due to secrecy around nanotech research, according to a House of Lords committee
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The food industry is too secretive over its research into nanotechnology, according to an influential House of Lords committee.

Lord Krebs, chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, warned on Thursday that the industry risks lowering public confidence in food nanotechnology as a result of this secrecy.

"Generally the food industry is reluctant to talk about potential products they have looked at for the future," he told ZDNet UK. "They feel they got their fingers burnt by GM [genetically modified foodstuffs], and are nervous of talking about new technologies. If they want to build public trust, they should be open about what they are doing."

Nanotechnology can be used by the food industry to improve the shelf life and packaging of products. While there is no evidence of immediate risk, not enough is known about the long-term effects of nanotechnology on the human body for regulation to be adequately formulated, according to Lord Krebs.

"Risks may arise internally in the gut, and if particles pass through the gut wall they may accumulate in the human body, for example in the brain," he said. "There are gaps in the basic science which need to be filled in."

The Science and Technology Committee published a report on nanotechnology and food on Friday. The committee recommended that gaps in knowledge about nanotech safety be addressed through increased research.

The committee recognised that the food industry may not be keen to make the details of its own research public for commercial reasons. Therefore it recommended that the Food Standards Agency maintain a confidential database of food industry nanotechnology results, which would enable effective risk assessment and allow the industry to seek regulatory approval for innovative uses of nanotech.

In addition, the committee said that more public funding should be made available for nanotech toxicology research, to fill in gaps in the knowledge of risks.

"It's a chicken-and-egg problem," said Lord Krebs. "Toxicology is an unfashionable area of research. The research community needs to do capacity building, to stimulate groups to get into this area."

Several public funding mechanisms exist for nanotech research, including funding from the various UK research councils; and EU funding, which is expected to devote €3.5bn to nanotechnology-related projects between 2007 and 2013.

The House of Lords report noted that at the moment, most investment into the use of nanotechnology in food comes from the food industry itself, but that the committee had not been able to find out the amount of research funding the industry had invested.

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