Hi-tech food may alienate public, warns watchdog

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The food industry is risking a public backlash against the introduction of new products containing tiny "nanoscale" particles because of secrecy over what it is planning in its research laboratories, a senior scientist said yesterday.

Nanotechnology, which involves using substances at the molecular end of the size scale, could offer substantial benefits to food consumers, but the industry's reluctance to discuss its plans risks alienating the public, said Lord Krebs, the former head of the Food Standards Agency.

The failure of the food industry to be transparent about the future use of sub-microscopic nanoparticles in its food and packaging is likely to result in a level of public distrust to match the outcry over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) food, said Lord Krebs, who chaired a House of Lords inquiry into nanotechnology and food.

"The food industry must be more open with the public about research it has undertaken and where it sees nanomaterials being used in food production in the future. The lesson from the reaction to GM foods is that secrecy breeds mistrust, and openness and transparency are crucial," Lord Krebs said.

"The food industry is very reluctant to put its head above the parapet and declare what it was doing in research. Our view is that this is exactly the wrong approach," he said.

The Krebs inquiry found that there was no evidence of any food product being sold in Britain that contained any non-natural nanoparticles – defined as being less than 100 nanometres, where one nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre. It failed to identify any health risks, largely because so little research has been carried out into medical implications of ingesting nanoparticles.

Some processed foods, such as chocolate, already contain naturally occurring nanoparticles, but there is a plethora of other products planned with nanoparticles, such as nano-sized fat droplets to make low-fat food taste like high-fat food, and packaging with nanoparticles that detect when the product is not fit for consumption.

The Lords' report calls for the food industry to be compelled to tell regulators about their plans for nanotechnology in a confidential register.

The market for the use of nanotechnology will rise from $410m in 2006 to an estimated $5.6bn (£3.5bn) by 2012. "We are on the cusp of explosive growth in this novel approach to food," Lord Krebs said. "The use of nanotechnologies in food and packaging is likely to grow significantly. The technologies have the potential to deliver significant benefits to consumers but it is important that detailed and thorough research into health and safety is undertaken."

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