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UK mulls confidentiality pact with industry over nano research

By Rory Harrington , 04-Feb-2011

The Food Standard Agency (FSA) said it is considering signing confidentiality agreements with food and packaging companies in a bid to persuade them to share information on nanotechnology research.

The proposal was tabled at the first meeting of a top level forum hosted by the food safety watchdog with regulators, industry players, and consumer advocates as part of a project to tackle issues surrounding nanotechnology in the food sector.

The Nanotechnologies and Food Discussion Group was put together in the wake of a parliamentary report raising concerns that the food and packaging sectors were being too secretive about nanotechnology. In January 2010, the House of Lord concluded that industry risked a public backlash if continued in its reluctance to disclose details of its research into the emerging technology.

Database or intelligence gathering?

At last month’s meeting, the group debated the contentious issue of compiling a confidential database of research being carried out by industry, as recommended by upper chamber’s Science and Technology Committee.

The FSA said it recognised the importance of gathering intelligence about nano-developments but did not agree that a mandatory approach was the best way to achieve this. It added the scheme should be about intelligence gathering in general rather than amassing a formal database.

In March 2010, a report from the Government suggested that any 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.

Non-disclosure

A formal agreement on confidentiality could help reduce industry fears, said delegates at the meeting on 13 January, which included members of FERA, Pira International, Leatherhead Food Research and the Food and Drink Federation.

The FSA said it was currently seeking legal advice over what non-disclosure or confidentiality arrangements it could make without breaching any statutory obligations it has as a government department.

“There are understandable concerns from industry that whatever information is shared will not be broadcast,” the agency’s Sandy Lawrie told FoodProductionDaily.com. “Within industry it is usual to have confidentiality agreements - but that might be a problem as we are a public body."

He added there was provision for maintaining confidentiality within Freedom of Information legislation and that the agency wanted to be absolutely clear with industry over what it could and could not agree to.

The FSA said it hoped to provide an answer at the next meeting, due to be held at the beginning of April.

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