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Worried that nanotechnology is not tough rules

29 March 2009 1,063 views No Comment

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Consumer and environment groups are concerned the burgeoning field of nanotechnology will soon be embraced by food companies and they want Australia’s Food Standards Code to keep pace.

The technology promises to make food look and taste better but little is known about its health impact. Some food giants are reported to be researching the technology, though none have publically acknowledged it.

Europe is poised for a moratorium on the technology’s use in food, while Australia thinks its current regulatory standards are sufficient.

From Melbourne Rachael Brown reports.

RACHAEL BROWN: Take a strand of your hair, divide it’s width by 100,000 and that’s the size of a nanometre; a tiny particle with the potential to create a big stir in the food world.

Consumer magazine Choice says nanotechnology is already used in around 800 products.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Invisible sunscreens, where there’s a nano-scale titanium dioxide, which gives transparent protection from UV. There’s also shirts that don’t actually stain because they’ve copied the nano-structure of Lotus leaves to create water repellent surfaces.

RACHAEL BROWN: Choice spokesman, Christopher Zinn, says some of the food giants are exploring the use of the technology for food additives to enhance taste and texture.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Developing an ice cream which has lower fat content but has the same fatty texture and flavour. Food packaging can keep food fresher if you’re using nano-materials. There’s a lot of applications; there’s a lot of work going on.

RACHAEL BROWN: But he says the food giants have been keeping hush on their research. He’s worried the technology could find its way into food and says consumers would be none the wiser and could get sick.

CHRISTOPHER ZINN: Under our current food code there’s no requirement for any of this to be specifically labelled the use of nano-particles.

They’re so small they can actually enter cells and enter parts of the body, which might not routinely happen with normal food stuffs. And that’s why want to see a regime with Food Standards Australia New Zealand, where there is going to be much greater safety assessments carried out.

RACHAEL BROWN: The ABC contacted food giants Unilever, Kraft and Nestle. Kraft and Nestle say they have no local nanotechnology research underway but neither could speak for their international arms.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand declined an interview. The Australian Office of Nanotechnology, which oversees the authority, and develops nanotechnology policy, thinks Australia’s regulations are tough enough.

The Office’s Craig Cormick:

CRAIG CORMICK: A major report just commissioned by the Australian Government by Monash University found that right across the board the regulatory systems in Australia are sufficient to cover most things.

However, they did point to some areas where we have to do a lot more work to make sure we keep on top of these things.

RACHAEL BROWN: But Associate Professor Thomas Faunce, from Australian National University’s Medical School, doubts the veracity of the Monash University report

THOMAS FAUNCE: All the research at the moment tends to indicate nano-particles have unusual toxicities related to size and shape.

In this sort of climate it’s much better if regulatory authorities apply the precautionary principle and start developing nano-specific regulatory structures.

If we don’t we’re going to have a catastrophe driven approach to regulation, where we wait for a major public health crisis to arise because of nano-particles causing toxicity in people.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: ANU Associate Professor Thomas Faunce with Rachael Brown.

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