Nanoengineered products for the food sector -- including a smart RFID nano sensor -- took centre stage at a two day conference held 20-21 November in Braga, Portugal to discuss the science of the miniscule.
Hosted by the European Commission the conference, held 20-21 November targeted the commercialisation of products derived from techniques derived from the science of the miniscule. Scientists and developers at the conference revealed some of the developments that could be important to the food sector if these are commercialised. Nanotechnology is championed by several manufacturers for use in packaging to extend shelf life, or more controversally, for improving the nutritional content and impact of foods. Scientists worldwide have been calling on the food sector and regulators to be more proactive in informing the public about the science, especially as consumers are worried about the potential health and environmental effects. On the 21 November in Portugal, at a special segment on food, the environment and energy, Thomas Becker of EADS Innovation Works in Germany outlined the company's part in a EU-funded project to develop a multisensing RFID tag for the sector. The development of the smart sensor is being funded through the EU's GoodFood programme and involves researchers and industry in Italy, Spain, and Germany. One of the main targets of the GoodFood project is to improve quality control during transport, storage and vending through the development of the flexible tag. "Today's food monitoring systems rely on expensive and bulky sensors suitable only for specific measurement tasks," the GoodFood project states in a paper on some prototypes the scientists have developed. "GoodFood develops a label that follows the products along all the food chain acquiring data and registering the overcoming of several thresholds in terms of temperature, humidity, light and gas concentrations." The RFID tag will have communication capabilities and integrated physical and chemical sensors for logistic datalogging. The sensor will incorporate ultra-low-power gas sensors along with a thin film battery, allowing data acquisition and storage when no reader field is present. "This design allows the user to access both the traceability and sensor information even when the on-board battery is exhausted," according to a description of the project. "The physical sensors for light, temperature and humidity are commercially available devices, while for chemical gas sensing innovative MOX sensors are developed, based on ultra-low-power micromachined hotplate arrays specifically designed for flexible tag integration purposes." Next up on stage was Maria Smolander of the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, who discussed the potential applications of nanotechnology in bioprocessing, processing and packaging. VTT, Finland's government-funded technical research centre, has been developing economic mass production methods to produce bioactive paper. One area of the project will work on methods to produce recyclable and cost effective methods to produce the bioactive paper, he said. Such paper could then be attached to food packaging, either inside or outside, to indicate problems. Another aspect of the project would be to add in molecules to the paper to slow down microbial growth. Next up was Remko Boom of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who discussed the use of nanotechnologies for food production.
Lastly Qasim Chaudhry of the UK's Central Science Laboratory outlined consumer safety and regulatory issues in relation to the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector. At the conference EU science and research commissioner Janez Potocnik emphasised that industry and science had to address public concerns. The Commission will be issuing a recommendation on a voluntary code of conduct scientists and industry will be asked to follow in promoting safe and ethical research on nanotechnology. "The possible applications of nanotechnology are huge and they have an important role to play in our future economic well-being and quality of life," Potocnik stated. "So it is of the utmost importance that we get it right when it comes to their governance." The discussion of the technology in Portugal was mirrored through a separate conference held in Brussels by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The meeting closed a week's activities with a scientific forum covering issues from chemical and biological risks to nanotechnology (For a full report on the EFSA conference see EFSA opens the floor on nanotechnology .) Meanwhile a survey in the US emphasises the caution that scientists are urging in developing nanotechnology applications. According to a new report published on 25 November in the journal Nature Nanotechnology the unknown human health and environmental impacts of the technology are a bigger worry for scientists than for the public. A sampling of 363 leading US nanotechnology scientists and engineers reveals that those with the most insight into a technology with enormous potential -- and that is already emerging in hundreds of products -- are unsure what health and environmental problems might be posed by the technology. "Scientists aren't saying there are problems," says the study's lead author Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism. "They're saying, 'we don't know. The research hasn't been done.'" The new findings are in stark contrast to controversies sparked by the advent of technologies of the past such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods, which scientists perceived as having lower risks than did the public, the study stated. While scientists were generally optimistic about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, they expressed significantly more concern about pollution and new health problems related to the technology. Potential health problems were in fact the highest rated concern among scientists, Scheufele stated. Twenty percent of the scientists responding to the survey indicated a concern that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of the public thought that might be a problem. About 30 percent of scientists expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while just 20 percent of the public held such fears. Nanotechnology rests on science's newfound ability to manipulate matter at the smallest scale, on the order of molecules and atoms.
The field has enormous potential to develop applications ranging from new antimicrobial materials and tiny probes to sample individual cells in human patients to more powerful computers and lasers. Products with nanotechnology built in include such things as golf clubs, tennis rackets and antimicrobial food storage containers. "Nanotechnology is starting to emerge on the policy agenda, but with the public, it's not on their radar," says Scheufele. "That's where we have the largest communication gap." The good news for scientists is that of all sources of nanotechnology information, they are the most trusted by the public, Scheufele stated. The European Commission has been encouraging public-private research partnerships for the development of the technology in Europe, with a focus on ensuring the science is there to alleviate public concerns about the environmental and health effects of nanotechnology engineered products. The European Commission has issued a mandate for a complete evaluation of nanotechnology by 31 March 2008 but, because of the vast range of existing nanomaterials with differing properties and safety profiles, EFSA has said it will not be able to meet this deadline. Instead, it has proposed to issue an initial scientific opinion by next summer, and plans to set up a working group of 10 to 15 member state scientific experts to build on existing opinions of scientific advisory bodies and third countries. Nanotechnology is the science of using the properties of tiny particles, measuring one billionth of a metre, for applications in areas such as processing, ingredients and packaging. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres (nm) wide, a red blood cell 7,000 nm wide, and a water molecule 0.3 nm wide.
Last month, a global consultation by the UK's Royal Society got underway to create a code that would guide companies developing, manufacturing and selling nanotechnology-engineered products