NEW ORLEANS — More than 15,000 food scientists, chefs, recipe developers and purveyors of spices, flavorings and additives met here last week to examine the newest innovations in the cook’s pot and on grocery shelves.
Nanoparticles, which could revolutionize steps all along the path from the farm to the table, were discussed openly and with passion in many of the scientific sessions of the Institute of Food Technologists annual conference.
But in the huge exhibition hall, among the thousand of displays of the newest advancements in the food industry, nano was rarely being promoted as the exciting science it may well be. Its absence was perplexing.
Food Safety News patrolled the sprawling Food Expo questioning likely users of the new technology. The enthusiastic company sales reps and scientists saw the “press” tags affixed to our convention passes and suddenly had very little to say. It was akin to not talking about the crazy aunt at the family reunion.
There were few signs among the elaborate displays that even mentioned nanotechnology. One exception was the exhibit for Southwest Research Institute, which runs 2 million square feet of laboratories in San Antonio, Texas.
“There are many areas where nanomaterial can be of an immense benefit to food development, processing, safety monitoring and packaging,” James Oxley, senior research scientist in nanomaterials for Southwest Research Institute, told Food Safety News.
Many exhibitors are actively developing exciting applications for nano particles, but they’re just not talking about it, he explained.
“The ongoing concern about possible health hazards or adverse reactions from nanomaterial has people staying pretty quiet about what they’re doing,” Oxley said.
“If the FDA provides a clearer picture of what it will and won’t accept in food and packaging, the use of nanomaterial holds great promise for a wide variety of food-related applications.”
A week before the world’s top food scientists gathered for this conference, the Food and Drug Administration issued guidance that it says outlines the agency’s view on whether products it regulates involve the application of nanotechnology.
They invite public comment on the draft guidance horribly named: “Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology.” The agency says “it represents the first step toward providing regulatory clarity on the FDA’s approach to nanotechnology.”
“Nanotechnology is an emerging technology that has the potential to be used in a broad array of FDA-regulated medical products, foods, and cosmetics,” said Carlos Peña, director of FDA’s emerging technology programs. “FDA is monitoring the technology to assure such use is beneficial.”
Meanwhile, on the same day that FDA made its nano announcement, the Environmental Protection Agency said that it will seek to determine whether nanomaterials in pesticide products can “cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health.”
There is enormous industry pressure on the government to move more rapidly on approving the use of nanomaterial. Many safety regulators and much of the public health community fear that there has been insufficient testing of the health hazards from exposure to nanomaterial.
An executive order signed by President Obama on Jan. 18. pretty much illustrates the quandary presented to all players in this enormously growing world of nanoparticles.
“Our regulatory system must protect public health, welfare, safety, and our environment while promoting economic growth, innovation, competitiveness, and job creation. It must be based on the best available science.”
What are we talking about?
Nano is derived from the Greek word for dwarf, which really tells us very little, so try this: a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, a nanoparticle is tens of thousands times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies — a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts — maintains a Consumer Products Inventory that offers the best-educated guess available on the commercialization of nanomaterial. PEN’s latest tally says there are currently 1,317 products, produced by 587 companies in 30 countries, containing nanomaterial.
Other than some cooking oil and chocolate flavoring, most of the products so far are not food but food-related, and involve food storage or preparation — items such as cutting boards. But those who compile the list say it is far from comprehensive.
The food industry is no different than the rest of the commercial world and thus is using in-house scientists or contracting with outside experts to see what these manmade, subatomic structures can do to enhance what they make and sell.
The scientific presentations and many of the hundreds of posters on new research findings made it clear that some companies are devoting many R&D dollars to using nano to make food seed more bug-resistant, enhance protection against pathogens, monitor spoilage or aid in traceability with food-packaging sensors or bolster flavoring and increase shelf life.
Some are already testing engineered nanoparticles to reduce bacterial growth, maintain the freshness and longevity of baked goods; keep meat juicer; eliminate disagreeable, but benign odors and reduce the amount of sugar and salt in recipes.
The rush to regulate
Regulating the use of nanoparticles, especially in food, has become an international quagmire.
“There is actually no specific definition for nanomaterials that’s widely accepted although several countries have published their own definition,” Bernadene Magnuson, Senior Scientific and Regulatory Consultant for Cantox Health Sciences, told Food Safety News.
In a session on food law and regulation, Magnuson explained to other scientists that food safety agencies in North America and overseas may require additional safety evaluations of nanomaterials with certain characteristics.
“These include nano particles that have the likelihood to persist and bio accumulate either in the humans or in the environment; those with a high level of either chemical or biological reactivity; a complex form or structure; and/or those with the ability to undergo a complex transformation,” explained the international expert, who is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, College of Medicine, University of Toronto.
“For oversight and regulation, however, the critical issue is whether and how such new or altered properties and phenomena emerging at the nanoscale create or alter the risks and benefits of a specific application.”
She said that safety studies will still need to be done to demonstrate lack of any potential health or environmental issues. The White House apparently agrees with her.
“Nanomaterials should not be deemed or identified as intrinsically benign or harmful in the absence of supporting scientific evidence, and r
egulatory action should
be based on such scientific evidence,” the White House said earlier this month, in a lengthy update on nano policy to the heads of all agencies, including the FDA and USDA, on the oversight of all applications of nanomaterial.
The use of nanotechnology in medicine and electronics, aircraft and vehicles, has been science-fiction-like and often borders on the unbelievable.
Naturally occurring nanoparticles — completely harmless — exist in many foods and spices, even chocolate, beer and dairy products. Toxicologists and other risk assessors worry that if there are devastating hazards, they may exist with the manmade or engineered nanostructures, where atom-sized or smaller chemical structures are constructed molecule-by-molecule into something with commercial value.
The U.S. safety agencies — FDA, USDA, EPA, CDC and NIOSH — have been besieged by industry, which wants nanoparticles to be immediately approved as safe because some of the chemicals — silver, titanium dioxide, copper — have been used more or less safely for decades.
But health and safety regulators are far from convinced that these same metals and chemicals reduced to nano-scale are perfectly safe, especially when it comes to inhalation or consumption.
There have been significant peer-reviewed studies by both academic and government investigators which have shown that many nano particles are small enough to penetrate the skin, lungs and pass through the all-important blood-brain barrier.
Inhalation of carbon nanotubes — which are one of the main building blocks of many nano products and packaging — has been shown to cause cancer, much like asbestos does. However, the particles can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause often-fatal damage more rapidly in test animals.
Nano-titanium dioxide, which is used as a whitening agent in many food and cosmetic products, has been proven to cause disease in test animals that have been exposed to high doses. One study at UCLA repeatedly showed damage or destruction of the animals’ DNA and chromosomes.
Judging by the number of fresh graduates and young scientists presenting their research during days of IFT poster sessions, it’s obvious that the use of nanomaterials will have an important place in the world of food science.
Photos: Above, James Oxley; lower, Bernadene Magnuson.