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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Nanoethics > Nanofood: Without Transparency and Accountability A Guaranteed Public Health Crisis

Summer Johnson
Executive Managing Editor
The American Journal of Bioethics

With nanotechnology certain to make its way into food manufacturing and food products, transparency and accountability is essential to avoid the kinds of food crises we have seen of late in other parts of the food industry such as the melamine calamity in China and the peanut/salmonella contamination problem in the United States. Food safety is essential to public health and for nanotechnology not to exacerbate that problem the time to anticipate future problems and solutions is now.

March 7th, 2009

Nanofood: Without Transparency and Accountability A Guaranteed Public Health Crisis

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: "You are what you eat." Well, if recent research in nanotechnology has anything to do with it, in the 21st century you be "nanofood".

But is this what we want to be? Or is there anything wrong with having our food enhanced by nanosized powders that enhance the absorption of minerals, particles that replace cholesterols in our foods that are plant rather than animal based or entirely new was of agriculture that make farming more environmentally friendly? At first blush, this all sounds wonderful. But before we dive into our first "nanofood" buffet, we have to consider the ethical backdrop against which we find ourselves in the midst of this food revolution and why we even need it in the first place.

First There Was Melamine and Then Came Peanuts

In the last year, the world experienced a food contamination scare of global proportions all due to the greed and corruptions of a single food company and a handful of executives in China who will now pay for their misdeeds with their lives. Zhang Yujun and Geng Jinping, provided the Chinese company Sanlu, melamine to put into milk formula that killed six children and sickened hundreds of thousands. The company's female executive, Tian Wenhua, will spend her life in prison. Food safety is an essential in a global economy where food is shipped around the world in the matter of days. In the "nanofood" era, food safety couldn't be more important, and its regulation cannot be a matter of national law. It must be internationally regulated with universal standards for acceptable use. The world cannot afford another melamine type scare.

But shortly on the heels of the melamine fiasco, the United States is currently experiencing its own public health crisis, with one of its staple foods for children and adults alike—peanut butter. Only now, in the last week, has the FDA acknowledged that a Georgia peanut plant knew for months that contaminated peanuts were coming into its factory and being used and shipped throughout the United States. Food safety around the world, it would seem, needs an overhaul.

The Promise of Nanofood

Yet given all of the problems with food safety in the United States and around the world, there can be no doubt that nanofoods and the applications of nanotechnologies to food hold tremendous promise. Almost every major food company according to Nanowerk has been working on nanofood applications since 2006. Four main categories of nanofood applications include: agriculture, processing, packaging and supplements. However, I see very little difference, on Nanowerks' categorization between processing and supplementation because both alter the food significantly and result in food that is chemically different and will be ingested by persons and that could put them at risk. This is where the real ethical problem lies. Everything from "nanoencapsulated flavor enhancers" to "nanocapsule infusion of plant based steroids to replace a meat's cholesterol" to "cellulose nanocrystal composites as drug carriers" all present the same risk—exposing human beings to unintended agents in their food that may make them grow big and strong or may, like melamine, make them sick.

Since 2005, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has reported on the agriculture sector of the nanofood industry to monitor the progress and predict which of these applications are likely to come to pass However, on the industrial front, where these nanofoods are being created in laboratories, to date no one has been keeping watch in the way that the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has been running an odometer on the number of products that contain nanotechnologies. I would argue that it is time they did and held Nestle, Altria, Unilever, and all the rest accountable for the nanofoods they are developing and perhaps getting ready to bring to market.

The United Kingdom is Stepping Up
On Thursday, February 5th, the United Kingdom's House of Lords Science and Technology Committee announced that they would be initiating an inquiry into the foods containing nanotechnology not just in their home country but also around the world .

The committee will investigate nanofoods but also supplements, food packaging, processing plants, animal feed and all of agriculture and even food containers and food utensils.

In their "Call for Evidence" , the committee asks questions of health and safety, the state of knowledge about nanofoods, nanoagriculture, and more. Vastly beyond what the United States has done, the United Kingdom is ready to tackled the nanofood question and ensure that their citizens are safe and ready to deal with these foods, if and when, they come to market.

Now it is the United States government's turn to do the same. The FDA must hold these very same hearings now bringing Nestle, Altria, Unilever, ConAgra, Monsanto and others to the table to discuss nanofoods and nanoagriculture before these products are widely available. FDA must have the very same inquiry process here in the United States.

Our citizens have a right to know whether nanofoods are already on our shelves, whether nanoparticles in our packaging materials, in our spatulas and in our supplements. If they are, what risks if any these pose to our health and safety, and if these companies simply do not know, what the government plans to do by way of funding studies to do the research to get us the information so that we can have the data.

Our cousins across the pond are doing it. So can we. Nanofoods have the potential to make us healthier, smarter, stronger, and live longer—but only if we study them first, make them safe, and introduce them into our society correctly, with the proper research, and in the right way. Not by slipping them into packaging or meats or cans covertly. We saw how well that worked with powdered milk and melamine. Nanoparticles created responsibly and studied thoroughly will never be a public health threat, but transparency is always best and is always the first step.

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