Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is a field of applied sciences and technologies involving the control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally below 100 nanometers. Nanomaterials may exhibit different physical and chemical properties compared with the same substances at normal scale, such as increased chemical reactivity due to greater surface area.

Nanotechnologies enable the management of food ingredients on a molecular level. Nanotechnology products could have a substantial impact on the food and feed sector in the future, potentially offering benefits for industry and the consumer, although possible risks need to be considered. Companies and institutes worldwide are currently researching and developing applications in fields such as the treatment of the mechanical and sensorial properties of food – for instance to achieve changed taste or texture – and modified nutritional value. Nanotechnology may also be used in food packaging, for instance to ensure better protection or to detect how fresh food is. The specific properties and characteristics of nanomaterials need to be considered for any potential health risks.

Topics: Completed work

In March 2009, EFSA’s Scientific Committee, which includes the chairs of all of EFSA’s Panels, published a scientific opinion on nanoscience and nanotechnologies in relation to food and feed safety . A guidance document on how to assess potential risks related to certain food-related uses of nanotechnology followed in May 2011. It provides practical recommendations on how to assess applications from industry to use engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) in food additives, enzymes, flavourings, food contact materials, novel foods, food supplements, feed additives and pesticides.

Both publications followed requests for advice from the European Commission. While finalising its outputs, EFSA took into account feedback received from public consultations.

EFSA’s Panels also consider the safety of specific nanomaterials, for instance in the areas of food additives and food contact materials.
 

Since 2006 EFSA has been following developments in nanotechnology within its remit – providing independent scientific advice and technical support to risk managers –, including reviewing the current state of knowledge and latest developments in nanotechnology with regard to food and feed.

The European Union has decided to take an “integrated, safe and responsible approach” to the development of nanotechnologies. This includes:

  • Reviewing and adapting EU laws
  • Monitoring safety issues
  • Engaging in dialogue with national authorities, stakeholders and citizens.

What are nanotechnologies?

Nanotechnologies involve, among other things, the use in the food and feed chain of substances of a very small size. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a metre (the term comes from the Greek word nanos, dwarf). Chemicals are generally considered to be nano sized if they are around 100 nm or less in size.

Why use nano sized substances?

Chemicals that are very small can have different properties compared to the larger sized versions. This can offer opportunities for manufacturing products such as medicines, cosmetics and foods, with the potential to behave differently in useful ways. However this changed behaviour compared to larger sized chemicals could also raise possible risks.

How are nanotechnologies being used?

Nanotechnologies have a range of actual or potential uses. For example sunscreens are available that use chemicals that at a nano size make the sunscreen transparent rather than opaque, but still block UV rays. In the food area, it could be possible to use nano-sized chemicals to improve food packaging or enhance the nutritional value of a product.

Why is EFSA involved?

Because there could be risks from nano sized chemicals due to characteristics and properties that aren’t observed for the larger size versions of chemicals. The use of nano sized chemicals, whilst offering potentially useful applications and benefits, needs also to be considered for any possible risks. That is EFSA’s role in relation to the food chain. EFSA provides independent scientific advice to risk managers in Europe to help them decide on any appropriate action to protect the consumer.

What is EFSA doing?

EFSA has been asked by the European Commission to provide a scientific opinion on the potential risks of application of nanoscience and nanotechnologies in food and feed. The opinion focuses on the use of nanotechnologies, particularily ENMs, in the food and feed chain. It elaborates on approaches and methodologies available for risk assessment of these very small substances but does not address any specific applications of particular engineered nanomaterials (ENMs). It takes into account the feedback received from different organisations and individuals during a public consultation on the draft opinion.

What does the opinion say?

EFSA’s Scientific Committee has concluded that established international approaches to risk assessment can also be applied to ENMs. The SC also concluded that a case-by-case approach would be necessary and that, in practice, current data limitations and a lack of validated test methodologies could make risk assessment of specific nano products very difficult and subject to a high degree of uncertainty.

What happens next?

The opinion will help the EC to explore appropriate measures, assess existing legislation and determine the scope of possible further requests for scientific opinions from EFSA in this field. EFSA will continue to follow the developments in the area.

Are any food products currently available that use nano sized substances?

The approval of products sold in Europe is the responsibility of the EC and Member States. EFSA would not be in a position to know about what is on the market as it is not our responsibility, but the technology exists for some applications, and products may be available from outside of Europe that could contain nano sized substances either in the product or its packaging.

Is there a regulatory framework for nanotechnology

Regulation is not within the remit of EFSA, which provides independent scientific advice to risk managers. It is the responsibility of risk managers to consider appropriate measures and assess existing legislation, in light of EFSA’s opinions. Information from the EC on the regulatory aspects of nanomaterials.