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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. It is claimed that nanotechnology products could have a substantial impact on the food and feed sector in the future, 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.

Risk assessment in the field of food and feed

Given the novelty of this technology, the safety of possible food and feed applications needs to be assessed and a need for risk assessment is expected in the context of:

  1. The authorisation of regulated substances.
  2. The presence of nanoparticles as contaminants in food and feed.
  3. Replies to general requests such as whether the application of nanotechnologies in food production leads to changes in nutritional value or bioavailability.

EFSA’s role

Since 2006 EFSA has been following developments in nanotechnology within its remit, including reviewing the current state of knowledge and latest developments in nanotechnology with regard to food and feed.

In March 2009 EFSA published a scientific opinion on nanoscience and nanotechnologies in relation to food and feed safety. The work follows a request from the European Commission for advice on this issue in 2007. EFSA’s Scientific Committee, which includes the chairs of all of EFSA’s Panels, has undertaken this work. It was assisted by a working group of scientists with relevant expertise. The Scientific Committee then endorsed a draft scientific opinion for public consultation, which was held in 2008. Some 200 submissions were received from around 30 different organisations and individuals.

The opinion, which takes into account feedback received, was adopted at the February 2009 Scientific Committee Plenary. It focuses on the use of nanotechnologies, particularly engineered nano materials (ENMs), in the food and feed chain. It elaborates on approaches and methodologies available for risk assessment of these very small particles but does not address any specific applications of particular ENMs. Its aim is to see whether existing risk assessment approaches can be appropriately applied to this new technology.

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. In addition, the SC made a series of recommendations. These include:

  • Investigating the interaction and stability of ENMs in food and feed, in the gastro-intestinal tract and in biological tissues
  • Developing and validating routine methods to detect, characterise and quantify ENMs in food contact materials, food and feed
  • Developing, improving and validating test methodologies to assess toxicity of ENMs (including reliability and relevance of test methods)

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

Two of EFSA’s Panels applied the case-by-case approach when looking into the safety of specific nano materials following requests from the European Commission. As part of its on-going work on food supplements, the Panel on food additives and nutrient sources (ANS) adopted a statement saying that it did not have enough data to be able to assess the safety of silver nanoparticles in silver hydrosol. The Panel which assesses the safety of food contact materials (CEF) adopted an opinion stating that a specific use of titanium nitride nanoparticles in a material used to make plastic drinks bottles did not give rise to toxicological concern.

In November 2009, the European Commission asked EFSA to prepare a guidance document on how to assess potential risks related to certain food-related uses of nanotechnology. As far as possible given the knowledge which is currently available, the guidance to be developed will provide practical recommendations on how to assess applications from industry to use ENMs in food additives, enzymes, flavourings, food contact materials, novel foods, food supplements, feed additives and pesticides. The proposed guidance document, a first draft of which is due to be completed by July 2010, will be subject to public consultation prior to being finalised.

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