It seems the food and nano debate of Spring/Summer 2014 has died down, for a while at least. The first volley (from my perspective) was the May 2014 release of ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture’ by the Friends of the Earth (FOE) Australia. Here’s how the report is described in a May 22, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,
Friends of the Earth’s new report, Way too little (pdf), looks at the now widespread presence of nanomaterials in our food chain and how little Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is doing to ensure our safety.
You can find the following passage on p. 6 of FOE’s report ‘Way too little: Our Government’s failure to regulate nanomaterials in food and agriculture‘,
This report will examine the changes since our 2008 report including the development of new food, food contact and agricultural products. It will review the current literature relating to the potential environmental, health and safety impacts associated with nanotechnology and summarise the Australian regulatory responses to date.
This updated report uncovers the:
•accelerating rate of commercialisation and rapidly increasing number of commercial products containing nanomaterials in the food and agricultural sectors;
•lack of information regarding which nanomaterials have been released and the likely exposure of humans and natural systems to these materials;
•lack of basic steps to allow us to track nanomaterials that have been released, such as
labelling and a register of products containing nanomaterials;
•growing gap between the pace of commercialisation and environmental, health and safety assessments;
•increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence that certain nanomaterials may cause harm to human health or the environment;
•failure of regulators to respond to the growingevidence of risks;
•lack of basic knowledge that is critical in order to fully analyse the particular environmental, health and safety issues associated with nanotechnology.
Six years ago, inaction was based on a perceived lack of data. Inaction is still the norm but that is no longer an excuse our Government can use. Scientists and scientific bodies such as the US National Research Council have given us more than enough evidence to justify a pro-active regulatory regime and a properly funded R&D program that will effectively target those areas of greatest environmental and health concern.
Unfortunately, our Federal Government seems unwilling to provide the levels of funding required for such work or to adopt appropriate regulation. The notion of precaution has been replaced with an attitude that it is the obligation of industry to determine whether their products are safe and regulators will only act when harm is shown. While France, Belgium and Denmark are implementing a mandatory register for nanomaterials and the EU’s is in the process of implementing a nano food labelling regime, Australian consumers remain in the dark.
This needs to change.
One of the issues with increased regulation and labeling is whether the benefits outweigh disadvantages such as the increased difficulty of getting needed foodstuffs to the marketplace and, of course, cost.
Tom Philpott in a May 28, 2014 article for Mother Jones magazine titled ‘Big Dairy Is Putting Microscopic Pieces of Metal in Your Food’ is a strong proponent for FOE’s position, albeit his geographic focus is the US and he seems most concerned with metallic nanoparticles (Note: Links have been removed),
Examples include Silk Original Soy Milk, Rice Dream Rice Drink, Hershey’s Bliss Dark Chocolate, and Kraft’s iconic American Cheese Singles, all of which now contain nano-size titanium dioxide*. As recently as 2008, only eight US food products were known to contain nanoparticles, according to a recent analysis [May 2014 report] from Friends of the Earth—a more than tenfold increase in just six years.
Philpott goes on to mention the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 2012 draft guidance on nanomaterials and food,
Back in 2012, the FDA released a draft, pending public comment, of a proposed new framework for bringing nano materials into food. The document reveals plenty of reason for concern. For example: “so-called nano-engineered food substances can have significantly altered bioavailability and may, therefore, raise new safety issues that have not been seen in their traditionally manufactured counterparts.” The report went on to note that “particle size, surface area, aggregation/agglomeration, or shape may impact absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) and potentially the safety of the nano-engineered food substance.”
What FDA is saying here is obvious: If nanoparticles didn’t behave differently, the industry wouldn’t be using them in the first place.
So what’s the remedy? Rather than require rigorous safety studies before companies can lace food with nanoparticles, the FDA’s policy draft proposes “nonbinding recommendations” for such research. Even that rather porous safety net doesn’t yet exist—the agency still hasn’t implemented the draft proposal it released more than two years ago.[emphasis mine]
June 27, 2014, the FDA issued a final ‘food and nanotechnology’ guidance document (more on that later).
In the meantime, Dr. Andrew Maynard (Director of the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center) strongly countered Philpott’s Mother Jones article with his own article published both on The Conversation (June 3, 2014) and on Nanowerk (June 4, 2014),
Recently the American publication Mother Jones published an article on the dangers of food laced with tiny metal oxide particles. The article, however, is laced with errors and misinformation.
The source material for the article came from a report by the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, an online database of nanotechnology-based consumer products and a peer-reviewed paper published in 2012. However, the analysis of the information is flawed.
The inventory Philpott cites is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, which I helped establish in 2006 as a way better understand the increasing number of consumer products that were using engineered nanomaterials. It provides a useful but only qualitative sense of what was being used where, and relies on intermittent web searches and other sources of intelligence. The inventory was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative.
Briefly, Andrew’s argument is that the FOE report (Way too little) which claims a tenfold increase since 2008 of food products with added nano titanium dioxide (and which Philpotts uses to build his case) is erroneous. In 2006, the inventory was voluntary and there was no oversight. At that time, eight food products had been added to the list. In 2013, the inventory was revived (Oct. 28, 2013 posting) and new information added from a 2012 academic paper. The products from the 2012 paper may have predated the 2006 inventory products, or not. There is no way to tell. Andrew notes this in his measured way,
As someone who works on the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, I can see how errors in translation crept into this story. The 2012 paper was addressing a legitimate concern that little is know about how much titanium dioxide is in the processed food chain. The Consumer Products Inventory provides important and unique insights into nanoparticles being used in products. Friends of the Earth have every right to ask what is known about the potential risks in what we’re eating. And reporters like Philpott have a professional obligation to highlight issues of concern and interest to their readers.
The problem with exaggerated and inflated claims is that FOE proves itself to be an unreliable source and Philpott’s failure to investigate adequately puts his own credibility into question. How can you trust either FOE’s materials or Philpott’s articles? The easiest way to begin rebuilding credibility is to admit one’s mistakes. To date, I have not seen any such attempts from FOE or Philpott.
Coming next: a research initiative into the health effects of nano and food and a research paper on nano in commercial drinks both of which help illustrate why there are concerns and why there is a reluctance to move too quickly.