The most inclusive assessment of the potential dangers of nanotechnology in the food industry is underway and could impact the technology's wider integration into the common market.
The collection of data is being undertaken by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and will evaluate the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology as voiced by experts andconsumers.
Nanotechnology deals with controlling the properties of matter at lengths between 1 and 100 nanometres. This opens up a whole universe of new possibilities for the food packaging industry, but also fears that the technology could adversely affect human health. A major concern is that there is too little information on the properties of nanoparticles and, in particular, on how their very small size might influence toxicity.
"The key question is whether and, if so, on what scale consumers come into contact with nanomaterials and the impact of these materials on the organism," said a BfR statement. "Timely communication about the possible use and potential risks of nanotechnologies in foods and consumer products will be of decisive importance when it comes to society's acceptance of nanotechnology."
BfR has already begun meticulous interview processes with 100 experts from research, industry, public agencies, consumer associations and non-governmental organizations. The multi-phase interviewing system will recognize all of the potential risks that have been identified worldwide across different industries.
Experts will then be given the answers of their collogues and will be asked to comment on all of the potential risks indicated. The objective is to identify already used or potentially usable nanomaterials, assign them to concrete applications and then draw conclusions on consumer exposure. Based on the available knowledge about exposure and hazard potential, the applications will then be classified according to the level of probable risk and risk reduction strategies developed.
BfR will then be conducting similar public interviews with panels of representative consumers. This way, consumers will be a part of the public and political debate about consumer protection issues.
The opportunities and risks linked to the use of nanotechnology from the consumers' perspective will be important for manufacturers to follow if they are to implement the technology in public applications.
Currently, there are no requirements to label foods containing nanoparticles and consumers are unlikely to be aware of such applications in foods. However, consumer attitudes and lobbying groupspressing for action could soon change regulations after scientists come to consensus on potential dangers.
The BfR research began in July and is expected to finish at the end of the year. BfR will then inform the general public of the results.