The first part of this food and nano ‘debate’ started off with the May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announcing the Friends of the Earth (FOE) report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘. Adding energy to FOE’s volley was a Mother Jones article written by Tom Philpott which had Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) replying decisively in an article published both on Nanowerk and on the Conversation.
The second part of this series focused largely on a couple of research efforts (a June 11, 2014 news item on Nanowerk highlights a Franco-German research project, SolNanoTox) and in the US (a June 19, 2014 news item on Azonano about research from the University of Arizona focusing on nanoscale additives for dietary supplement drinks) and noted another activist group’s (As You Sow) initiative with Dunkin’ Donuts (a July 11, 2014 article by Sarah Shemkus in a sponsored section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper0).
This final part in the series highlights the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) final guidance document on nanomaterials and food issued some five weeks after the FOE’s report and an essay by a Canadian academic on the topic of nano and food.
A July 9, 2014 news item on Bloomberg BNA sums up the FDA situation,
The Food and Drug Administration June 24  announced new guidance to provide greater regulatory clarity for industry on the use of nanotechnology in FDA-regulated products, including drugs, devices, cosmetics and food.
In this final guidance, the agency said that nanotechnology “can be used in a broad array of FDA-regulated products, including medical products (e.g., to increase bioavailability of a drug), foods (e.g., to improve food packaging) and cosmetics (e.g., to affect the look and feel of cosmetics).”
Also on the agency website, the FDA said it “does not make a categorical judgment that nanotechnology is inherently safe or harmful. We intend our regulatory approach to be adaptive and flexible and to take into consideration the specific characteristics and the effects of nanomaterials in the particular biological context of each product and its intended use.”
This July 18, 2014 posting by Jeannie Perron, Miriam Guggenheimm and Allan J. Topol of Covington & Burling LLP on the National Law Review blog provides a better summary and additional insight,
On June 24, 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released three final guidance documents addressing the agency’s general approach to nanotechnology and its use by the food and cosmetics industries, as well as a draft guidance on the use of nanomaterials in food for animals.
These guidance documents reflect FDA’s understanding of nanomaterials as an emerging technology of major importance with the potential to be used in novel ways across the entire spectrum of FDA- regulated products.
The documents suggest that FDA plans to approach nanotechnology-related issues cautiously, through an evolving regulatory structure that adapts to manufacturers’ changing uses of this technology. FDA has not established regulatory definitions of “nanotechnology,” “nanomaterial,” “nanoscale,” or other related terms. …
The notion of an “evolving regulatory structure” is very appealing in situations with emerging technologies with high levels of uncertainty. It’s surprising that more of the activist groups don’t see an opportunity with this approach. An organization that hasn’t devised a rigid regulatory structure has no investment in defending it. Activist groups can make the same arguments, albeit from a different perspective, about an emerging technology as the companies do and, theoretically, the FDA has become a neutral party with the power to require a company to prove its products’ safety.
You can find the FDA final guidance and other relevant documents here.
Finally, Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph, offers a rather provocative (and not from the perspective you might expect given his credentials) opinion on the topic of ‘nano and food’ in a July 18, 2014 article for TheRecord.com,
Nanotechnology and nanoparticles have been around for quite some time. In fact, consumers have been eating nanoparticles for years without being aware they are in their food.
Some varieties of Dentyne gum and Jell-O, M&M’s, Betty Crocker whipped cream frosting, Kool-Aid, Pop-Tarts, you name it, contain them. Even food packaging, such as plastic containers and beer bottles, have nanoparticles.
While consumers and interest groups alike are registering their concerns about genetically modified organisms, the growing role of nanotechnology in food and agriculture is impressive. When considering the socio-economic and ethical implications of nanotechnology, comparisons to the genetic modification debate are unavoidable.
The big picture is this. For years, capitalism has demonstrated its ability to create wealth while relying on consumers’ willingness to intrinsically trust what is being offered to them. With trans fats, genetically modified organisms and now nanoparticles, our food industry is literally playing with fire. [emphasis mine]
Most consumers may not have the knowledge to fully comprehend the essence of what nanotechnology is or what it can do. However, in an era where data access in almost constant real-time is king, the industry should at least give public education a shot.
In the end and despite their tactics, the activist groups do have a point. The food and agricultural industries need to be more frank about what they’re doing with our food. As Charlebois notes, they might want to invest in some public education, perhaps taking a leaf out of the Irish Food Board’s book and presenting the public with information both flattering and nonflattering about their efforts with our food.
ETA Aug. 22, 2014: Coincidentally, Michael Berger has written an Aug. 22, 2014 Nanowerk Spotlight article titled: How to identify nanomaterials in food.
ETA Sept. 1, 2014: Even more coincidentally, Michael Berger has written a 2nd Nanowerk Spotlight (dated Aug. 25, 2014) on the food and nano topic titled, ‘Nanotechnology in Agriculture’ based on the European Union’s Joint Research Centre’s ‘Workshop on Nanotechnology for the agricultural sector: from research to the field”, held on November 21-22 2013′.