EFSA draft opinion flags need for more nanotech research

By Gavin Kermack

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Risk assessment, Nanotechnology

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued a draft opinion that there are broad uncertainties over the safe use of nanotechnology for foodstuffs, and more research is recommended.

Nanotechnology is the use of substances on a very small scale – 100 nanometres or smaller. The technology has potential for use in a number of industries, including medicine, painting and coating.

Potential uses in food include targeted delivery of nutrients, as well as whackier proposals like ‘interactive foods’ (food which allows the consumer to select flavours, nutrients and even colour), packaging that alerts the consumer when the food is about to pass its use-by-date, and self-antibacterialising cutting boards and fridges.

The draft opinion is the result of a European Commission request for a view on whether existing risk assessment methods are applicable to this new technology. It focuses on engineered nanomaterials (ENM) that are deliberately introduced into the food chain, including ingredients and additives, fertilizers and pesticides.

The conclusion of the draft, which is open for comment until December 1 2008, is that existing risk assessment methods can be applied.

However it goes further by drawing attention to considerable limitations and uncertainties on characterizing, detecting, and measuring ENM, and on their toxicity, distribution, metabolism, absorption and excretion.

The opinion states: “The main concerns [over ENM] stem from the lack of knowledge about the potential effects and impacts of nano-sized materials on human health and the environment.”

It also acknowledges uncertainties over “the difficulty to characterise, detect and measure ENM in food/feed and biological matrices and the limited information available in relation to aspects of toxicokinetics and toxicology. There is limited knowledge of (likely) exposure from possible applications and products in the food and feed area or of environmental impacts of such applications and products. The current usage levels of ENM in the food and feed area is unknown”​.

Case-by-case

ESFA advises that is not possible to apply data on non-nano chemicals to their nano-sized counterparts.

“Risk assessment of ENM in the food and feed area should consider the specific properties of ENM in addition to those common to the equivalent non-nanoforms… toxiconetic and toxicity profiles [of ENM] cannot be fully inferred by extrapolation from data on their equivalent non-nanoform,” ​is says. “ Thus, the risk assessment of ENM has to be performed on a case-by-case basis.”

ESFA explains that toxiconetic behaviour of ENM could be modified by formulation at the nanosize (as opposed to their normal-sized counterparts). As an example, when aluminium is reduced to nano-levels, it becomes an explosive. Moreover, ENM could undergo changes in the gastrointestinal tract, affecting their physio-chemical properties and absorption.

There is also concern over the possibility that “insoluble ENM may be retained for a long time and accumulate”​.

As for toxicity, very little testing has been done other than on metals and metal oxides. ESFA advises that there is a need to “develop understanding of the toxicity (including chronic exposure and carcinogenicity) following oral intake of a wide range of ENM for which there is likely exposure”​.

A first step

Over the last eight years, government in Europe has invested £1.7 billion (€2.19 billion) in research into nanotechnology.

The draft opinion is the first step in the EC’s potential legislation regarding the introduction of nanotechnology into the food industry. The final opinion will be used by the Commission to explore what measures may be appropriate and existing legislation.

It will also determine scope for any further opinions that may be asked of EFSA on the topic.

For now, however, EFSA makes clear that the possible uses of nanotechnologies in the food arena is industry in development, and that its draft is not in itself a risk assessment of the possible uses of ENM.

It does, however, give an indication to potential applicants to use nanotechnology for food uses of the data they would have to supply for a risk assessment.

The full draft opinion can be viewed here.

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