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Nanotech disclosure may trigger R&D exodus from UK

By Rory Harrington , 31-Mar-2010

A measure forcing food and packaging companies to submit details of nanotechnology research to a national database could trigger an R&D exodus from the UK, the Government has warned.

The UK Government was responding to a recent report from the House of Lords which concluded that industry risked a public backlash if continued in its reluctance to disclose details of its research into nanotechnology.

The report, published by the body’s Science and Technology Committee in January, was highly critical of the food and food packaging industry for its lack of transparency into uses of nanotechnologies and nanomaterials. The group called for the introduction of a mandatory confidential database on nano research to allow for the formulation of risk assessment strategies by safety chiefs.

While the Food Standards Agency had welcomed the need for gathering information on nanotech, the Government cautioned last week it was “inevitable” that businesses would be wary of releasing commercially sensitive information about their research, “even to a Government Department”.

It warned that such a move could prompt a migration of nanotech research to other countries where no such obligation existed.

“While a mandatory reporting requirement for food-related research would ensure that information is provided, it could also act as a deterrent for companies and other laboratories to carry out research and development in the UK, if they could avoid any reporting requirement by transferring this work to other jurisdictions,” it added.

Government chiefs also admitted that new legislation would likely be needed to enforce such a move.

“It seems doubtful whether existing legal powers could be used to compel UK food companies to provide information about their research activities or their plans for future product launches,” it said. “Introducing a mandatory reporting system would therefore require new legislation.”

Intelligence gathering and engagement

While the Government confirmed the FSA was currently developing “appropriate databases” on nanotech research and would include them in its work on emerging risks, it appeared to suggest the emphasis of the approach would be through “intelligence gathering and engagement with industry experts” rather than a compulsory database.

The Government however, accepted a recommendation that the FSA create and maintain a public register of food packaging and food products that contain nanomaterials approved by the European Union. It added that the criterion for inclusion on the list would be “one problem”. There could also be value in including materials that also “appear to have nanoscale elements”, said the official response.

Public perception

The House of Lords report noted that transparency is key for ensuring public trust in both food safety and scientific developments, and argued that, although there is no evidence that the use of nanotechnologies in food currently presents a threat to consumer safety, food companies’ failure to publish or discuss details of their research is likely to undermine public confidence in the technology.

The Government appeared to accept this and said that public attitudes towards nanotech are “a critical factor”. It also agreed that any lack of openness, or the appearance of this, would “serve to undermine public confidence in innovative products and new technologies”. It pledged that the FSA would work with industry and other players to “ensure that as much information as possible is shared”.

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