Part of this nutritious nano-breakfast

The Woodrow Wilson Center released a report on engineered nanomaterials used for food applications. The aren't common (we think), but there are a few technologies that are making their way to the market. One for instance would have a nanofilm that has anti-microbial properties. Of course, it may also leach into your food. Yum! (Okay, it probably wouldn't taste any different but untested films don't sit that well with me.)

One of the things I love about these type of reports on emerging threats/risks is how they put a bunch of options on the table for industry and regulators as if they are all equally possible. They usually fall into a pattern that goes something like this:

1) Industry could do all the research to figure out how safe these things are of their own accord. This is the best option. (AT: Sounds likely!)

2) The regulators coudl determine that X needs to be fully regulated and tested and require it under existing statutes. (AT: Just like EPA regulated asbestos! Note to the uninformed: EPA tried to ban asbestos and failed showing its extreme regulatory muscle.)

3) Congress could step in (AT: Just like they did for...geeze, take your pick, the variety is incredible!)

4) Industry could just put it on the market claiming loophole X and everyone sits back and sees what happens. (Ding, ding, ding!)

In this specific case, industries could claim that their plastic wrap is still basically made out of the same stuff so is acceptable under FDAs regs, or at least the statute. The way FDA does this part of their work is to publish a list of stuff that's acceptable for food contact based on an application. If it's on the list, anyone can use it. A business could argue that even though they nano-engineered something, it's still the same thing; no application necessary. The report notes that the FDA only allows this if the new thing doesn't differ significantly from the thing in the original listing, but since the listing confidential business info, what's to stop a company from claiming that their product fits the general description on the list of approved products and they can't see the original submission. Ergo, they're in the clear. I'd add, how in the heck is the FDA or the EPA (who has some jurisdiction in certian cases here) even going to know it's being used?

As supreme prognosticator, here's what I say is going to happen. Industry will run a small test or two to make sure it's not violently, acutely toxic (I mean, if it kills someone, they can't be a repeat customer!). Then they'll use it, assuming that the regs are sufficently vague that they can make a good case in court that they didn't have to do anything else. Then, since it's not acutely toxic and it's already on the market, it will stay. As everybody knows, it's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, but it's even better if you never have to do either.

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I was just offered a job with the Office of Food Additive Safety doing assessment of environmental safety of nano food additives because my postdoc dealt with nanotoxicology. During the interview it was made very plain to me that I would have no regulatory power whatsoever, and that all I could do was ensure that the companies made some statement about the potential environmental effects. I would have had no power to assess the accuracy of their statements, just check a box that said one was present.

I didn't take the job. Paid pretty well, though.

By Johnny Chimpo (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

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