Food packaging sector responds to nanotech criticism

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, Packaging

Experts have questioned the conclusions of a UK parliamentary report that the food packaging industry is too secretive about advances in nanotechnology.

Specialists from Pira International said high costs and supply chain concerns were responsible for the slower take up of the technology in the packaging sector – rather than any attempt by the industry to conceal research for fear of a public backlash.

The organisation, which provides business, technical and market advice to the packaging, printing and paper industries, was reacting to a report from the UK’s House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last week which warned that reluctance by the food industry as a whole to communicate openly on nanotechnology was in danger of incurring a public backlash​similar to that which occurred against genetically modified (GM) foods.

Pira International consultant Dr Graham Moore told that it was simply “too early” ​to level such criticism at the segment because so few nanomaterials had been incorporated into packaging.

“The limited growth in the market to date is strongly related to cost,”​ he said. “Companies are waiting for others to make a breakthrough and bring the cost of nano-packaging down. There has been a lot of work done at a research level but what is missing is the link with industry. Safety is also an issue. A third concern is over whether there is the supply chain in place and whether component parts could be produced in sufficient quantity and consistent quality.”

Nick Kernoghan, the company’s UK director, also cited cost as a major factor in curbing growth. He added: “Nanotechnology is quite expensive and the biggest pressure in packaging at present is cutting not increasing costs.”


Both experts agreed that expansion in nano-packaging was extremely likely. Moore said growth would be fuelled “as the move towards globalisation of the food supply boosts demand for shelf-life enhancing packing”. ​A recent report by iRAP forecast the global nano-packaging market would to climb from $4.13bn in 2008 to $7.3bn by 2014 – with an average growth rate of 11.65 per cent per annum.

House of Lords Committee Chairman Lord Krebs also said: "The use of nanotechnologies in food and food packaging is likely to grow significantly over the next decade. The technologies have the potential to deliver some significant benefits to consumers but it is important that detailed and thorough research into potential health and safety implications in this area is undertaken now to ensure that any possible risks are identified.”

The Pira pair also concurred that any secrecy over breakthroughs is being driven by normal commercial concerns rather than a wish to keep the public in ignorance. Given the current robustness of regulatory regimes, it was just not possible to be secretive about products brought to market, they said.

“The science needs to be promoted in an effective way and concerns need to be addressed through the regulatory testing regimes​,” said Moore. Kernoghan believed the Lords Committee’s recommendation to introduce an obligatory database so that regulatory authorities could monitor and assess new developments would be acceptable to the industry and showed an acceptance that thorough risk assessment was necessary.

He added there was general industry consensus that risk assessments would need to be carried out on a case by case basis and that migration was likely to be the issue most scrutinised. "However, in many cases nano-packaging will not be in direct contact with food", Kernoghan said.

Other responses

Other industry bodies and sectors appear to have been taken by surprise by the verdict of Lord Krebs’ science committee.

The European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (EUROPEN) said it had yet to formulate a position on nanotechnology but that it believed each packaging material sector would be required to deal with the issue separately.

The UK Food and Drink Federation said it supported open discussion about the issue.

Julian Hunt, FDF director of communications, added: Given that nanotechnology is in its infancy in the food and drink sector and that bringing new innovations to market is a long and complex process, we are surprised that the report seems to criticise the food industry for an apparent reluctance to communicate extensively on this subject.”

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