Three years of negotiations to update the EU Novel Foods regulations fell apart last week when a last-ditch attempt to reach a compromise between the EU Parliament, the European Commission and the EU Council of Ministers failed.

While the talks fell down on the use of cloned animals and their descendants, their failure to reach a compromise will have wider ramifications, with the disagreement meaning that there will be no updates on legislation around nanotechnology. What is this likely to mean for the burgeoning sector? Petah Marian reports.

Nanomaterials, products that are less than one millionth of one millimetre, are set to become an important channel for innovation in the food sector. This technology has the potential to offer benefits around product reformulation and functional foods, longer food shelf life, and improved levels of food safety.

While the channel is one that is still very nascent, and not currently being used commercially in food products, a UK government report from March last year valued nanotechnology in food and agriculture as being worth US$3.2bn by 2015, up from $265m in 2007.

Current applications are focused around antimicrobial packaging, with nano silver included in food containers to prevent bacteria from sticking to food, as well as the ability to improve the shelf life of products by making packaging less permeable.

For example, there are beer bottles that contain nano silica, which Leatherhead microscopy consultant Kathy Groves says, makes it more difficult for oxygen to get through the polymer of the plastic, which would make the beer go off.

A Food Standards Agency (FSA) spokesperson told just-food today (7 April) that the European Food Services Authority (EFSA) recently provided a “positive opinion” on the use of titanium nitride nano-particles in the manufacture of polyethylene bottles. It said that this will be reflected in EU legislation from 1 May.

Dr Barry Park from NanoKTN, a knowledge transfer network for the nanotechnology sector, also highlighted the potential for nanotechnology to be used in product reformulation, with nano-sized salt particles set to become available that will allow manufacturers to use less salt, while still maintaining the salty flavour.

He also said that there is work being done in reducing the amount of fat, and sugar in products using nanotechnology, saying that research is underway to reduce the droplet size of fat in emulsions, using water in oil in water emulsions.

While nanoparticles are the same as traditional ingredients, only smaller, there are concerns that nanoparticles can penetrate into parts of the body where larger particles can not go. 

Park said the FSA is currently investigating what happens when nanomaterials pass through the gut wall and where they end up. “Some of those studies have been done, and there are a lot of studies yet to be completed,” he said.

“Many of the studies have found that they don’t pass through and they don’t reside in the gut, which means they don’t play any part in issues we should be concerned about,” he added.

The current Novel Foods regulation dates back to May 1997 and regulates food and ingredients that have not been significantly used for human consumption in the EU before 15 May 1997. Talks to update the regulation fell down last week when the European Parliament and European Council of Ministers could not come to an agreement on regulations around cloned meat and that of their offspring.

Last year, the European Parliament called for nano-ingredients to be subject to Novel Food regulations. It also called for a moratorium on their use until a specifically designed risk assessment of nanotechnology processes or nano-ingredients can prove them to be safe, expressing concerns that nanotechnology is already being used in food and food packaging.

However, the FSA confirmed to just-food that no engineered nanomaterials have been approved for marketing as foods or ingredients in the EU. “We are also not aware of any food additive that is specifically engineered to consist of nano-sized particles,” the spokesperson said.

Groves said that some people believe there is no need for new regulations on nanotechnology. “The novel food regulations will address any ‘novel’ properties of ingredients, say for instance nano,” she said. “And I’ve got lots of sympathy for that, I think that it’s true.”

Park echoed Groves’ position, saying that the lack of a change in the regulation gives the industry a sense of certainty, as some companies would have been waiting to understand what the changes will mean.

According to Park, the lack of change means that “clarity [in legislation], at least for the moment” will mean that companies have a “clearer sense of what they can do, based on what they’ve done in the past”.

He added that any change may have meant that companies would have “held fire” on their nanotechnology strategies until they understood what the changes in legislation would have meant in practice.

While the industry feels that current Novel Foods regulations cover the sector well, Groves said that it is important to get a clear definition of what is considered “nano”, particularly in terms of labelling. She suggested that under many definitions products like icing sugar and boiled eggs would be considered nanomaterials due to the size of the natural ‘nano’ particles in the products.

The new regulations, had they gone ahead, would have meant a legal definition of the term nanomaterials. A European Commission spokesperson told just-food that would have triggered a pre-market approval under Novel Foods Regulation and a mandatory labelling requirement on the ingredients list with the word ‘nano’ after the name of the ingredient.

Groves said she has been involved in discussions with the FSA on the labelling of nanomaterials and said that her personal position is that it is “not worthwhile”. However, she said that in the FSA’s consumer study of nanomaterials, which is set to be released next week, found that “many people favour simple labelling”.

She said the study found that people can understand the need for nanomaterials in packaging, but can not really understand the need for nanomaterials in their food.

“Even in the beginning, they weren’t sure if they wanted technology to tell them if products were fresh or not, but they were asked to keep a diary of the food they bought and the food they threw away and when they came back they were all quite different, and said they were now aware of how much food they do waste and do throw away. So I think it’s just about getting people to think about the benefits,” says Groves.

She says that the argument is that if you put an ‘N’ or something simple on the product, people can then go away and look it up. However, Groves emphasised that putting an ‘N’ or a ‘nano’ on the label is not going to help consumers without more education into the way that science and technology feeds into the food sector. “We do need to educate people more about their food. And they need to take responsibility about learning about it.”

While studies into the viability and safety of nanomaterials continue, food companies may face an uphill battle in swinging consumer perception in their favour, with concerns that a lack of education may mean that this technology goes the way of cloned meat and GM.

Groves said that the industry needs to be more open, as there is a “climate of fear around the word nanotechnology”. A House of Lords report into nanotechnology and food found that food companies’ failure to publish details of their research into nanotechnology was “unhelpful” and that the industry’s attempts to be “secretive” about its research “is the type of behaviour which may bring about the public reaction it is trying to avert”.

While it seems as though there is still a some way to go before nanomaterials and technologies make their way into our food, industry may have even further to go before it is able to convince consumers to eat it.