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.