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Food industry not prepared to implement applications of nanotechnology.

The markets for foods that encompass some sort of nanotechnology are forecast to triple over the next four years and to exceed $20 billion by 2010. In fact, a recent study by the international business consulting company Cientifica found over 150 nanotechnology applications in the food industry at present, with some of the world's biggest companies--like Altria, Nestle, Kraft, Heinz and Unilever--involved in nanotechnology research and development.

If industry observers are right, there are hundreds of new food and agriculture products under development, many of which could be on the market in as little as two years. But, according to a new report on nanotechnology, it does not appear that governments, industry, producers or trade groups are ready for their arrival.

The report charges that there is no research strategy for addressing possible human health or environmental risks in place and that the public is at best vaguely aware of what the word nanotechnology even means, much less how it might be involved with growing and producing food or other agricultural products. Additionally, say the authors, "There is no evidence that government oversight bodies are ready to conduct the kind of thorough reviews that these exciting but untested innovations demand."

So far, according to the report, companies developing nanotechnology applications have taken few steps to educate consumers about the benefits or potential risks of nanotechnology. This is despite past consumer sensitivities to new technology in food and despite the fact that to date, more than a dozen known nanotechnology consumer food products are on the market, with the promise of many more to come.

At the federal level, the report notes a lack of human health, environmental and lifecycle risk research; little reliable information or projections regarding where or how nanotechnology is being commercialized in the food and farm sectors; and no domestic or international oversight strategy.

"The number of nanotechnology food products currently being sold appears to be relatively small," said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, which supported the study. "But with millions of dollars being spent globally by both government and industry to apply nanotechnologies in areas such as food processing, food safety and packaging, and agricultural production, it is the right time to start asking a number of related questions: What nano-engineered food products will appear on the market over the next year or two? What are the potential benefits and risks? Who will be affected? And how can consumers become engaged early on?"

Nanotechnology involves the control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For comparison purposes, one inch equals 25 million nanometers. A nanometer-sized particle also is smaller than a living cell and can be seen only with the most powerful microscopes available today. At the nanoscale, the physical, chemical and biological properties of materials differ in fundamental and valuable ways from the properties of individual atoms and molecules or bulk matter. Nanotechnology R&D is directed toward understanding and creating improved materials, devices and systems that exploit these new properties.

Nanotechnology also is being used to create better packaging and healthier foods. For example, researchers are working on creating food packages embedded with tiny materials specifically designed to alert consumers that a product is no longer safe to eat. Food scientists also are creating nanomaterials whose small size gives the ability to deliver powerful nutrients to human cells where they previously could not reach. In addition, scientists believe nanomaterials can be designed to block certain substances in food, such as harmful cholesterol or food allergens, from reaching certain parts of the body.
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Publication:Food & Drink Weekly
Date:Sep 11, 2006
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