EXPERT REACTION: FSANZ releases food nanotech safety reports

Embargoed until: Publicly released:

FSANZ (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) has released two reports reviewing the evidence for the safety of nanotechnologies in food packaging and food additives. Based on patent searches rather than on nanotech declarations to the regulator, the reports suggest there is no direct evidence to suggest novel nanomaterials are currently being used in food packaging applications in Australia or New Zealand. Expert comments below.

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Simon Brown is Professor of Physics at the University of Canterbury

FSANZ has commissioned reports on the issue of whether it is safe to use nanoparticles in food additives and food packaging. FSANZ’s first key finding is that these reports indicate that the weight of evidence does not support claims of significant health risks. At first sight this is good news for the consumer, and so it is a shame that many readers will stop reading at this point, believing that there is no issue.

In fact the Executive Summaries of the reports are much more balanced and highlight some significant issues, and in particular the lack of concrete evidence about the safety of these materials, and the fact that we don't even know very well how to measure if they are present. Very little is known about the effects of long-term exposure to low doses of these materials and such studies are notoriously difficult.

Given the very significant scientific uncertainties, I think these reports sound an appropriate note of caution: the situation is not nearly as simple as FSANZ's key finding suggests.

FSANZ should be congratulated for commissioning these reports, but its response is glib. It will remain the case for many years to come that there are considerable uncertainties about the effects of the use of nanoparticles in consumer products, and New Zealand's regulatory system would do well to acknowledge those uncertainties, rather than simply giving the green light to these products.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 7:51pm
Professor David Lewis is Director of the Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology, Flinders University

The use of Nano-materials in food packaging offers a lot of benefits and new opportunities. These include the promise of offering extended shelf-life to perishable foods such as red meat and chicken, giving significant food safety and health benefits – not to mention the cost and environmental savings associated with less food wastage. This report is a positive step forward to allowing this to happen in Australia and letting us catch up to other parts of the world.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 7:48pm

Associate Professor Francesca Iacopi is from the Environmental Futures Research Institute at Griffith University

The use of ​the ​​‘Nanotechnology’​ term is too broad.​

Any potential danger for food packaging ​would strongly depend on the compounds​ and forms​used, and each of them needs to be specifically assessed​.

Chemically active compounds might be more reactive in the nano form than​ in their​ usual form. However, the​ types and​ quantities the report states may leak into food are so small that it wouldn’t have any accumulative effects.

Other materials such as nano​carbon are​ generally​ not active, but there is a danger over a long continued exposure that they could ​accumulate into the body, so manufacture​rs would need to ensure they are encased in materials considered safe to ensure they do not leak.

While there are no reports of nanomaterials being used​ for food packaging​ in Australia or New Zealand, we should look to Europe for guidelines on safe practices.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:48pm
Professor Ian Rae is an expert on chemicals in the environment at the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. He was also an advisor to the United Nations Environment Programme on chemicals in the environment and is former President of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute

These are very good reports.  Roger Drew is one of Australia's leading toxicologists.

The reports draw on patent literature, but only to show the likely uses of nanomaterials in packaging.

They examined the published research literature, which shows that migration of nanomaterials from packaging is negligible. However, the authors caution that (a) there is not very much of that literature (few research studies) and (b) more needs to be known about the toxicology of nanomaterials.

Some nanomaterials have been included in food for years now, with no evident ill effects.

At present it seems that there is some use of such materials overseas, but not here.  Companies might claim superior performance of their packaging but they will be wary of volunteering information about the inclusion of nanomaterials because they know that, for some people, it is a sensitive issue.

An independent assessment of whether nanomaterials are present in packaging would require a full chemical analysis and cost a lot of money.  In view of the likely low exposure and low hazard, the risk is low and so it is unlikely that anybody would do this.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:42pm

Dr Janet Paterson is a Lecturer in Food Toxicology at UNSW

FSANZ is a respected body whose first priority is public safety.

I would trust their judgement on whether a label declaration should be made. One needs to consider what such a declaration would achieve.

In regards to whether or not nanotechnology should be reported by manufacturers to FSANZ: this is something that FSANZ is competent to decide, basing their judgement on toxicology research on nanomaterials in additives, packaging and possible migration into foods.

Remember that, unlike other countries, Australian and New Zealand food additives must be specifically permitted in each food, for a given purpose, in permitted concentrations. There is no list of generally regarded as safe (GRAS) additives that can be added without permission.

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency has been investigating the safety of nanomaterials for some years. Below is a recent summary on their website. It should be easy for journalists to read.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 5:00pm

A/Prof Michael Biercuk is from the School of Physics in the Faculty of Science and a research leader at the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology

Nanotechnologies and nanomaterials can pose a health risk similar to general industrial chemicals. The existence of particles or materials with sizes on the nanoscale in food or food packaging is longstanding - they've existed before we even knew to call them nanoparticles.  Moreover, their existence does not appear to pose any new form of health risk in a way that is qualitatively different than other additives. Monitoring and analysis of any food packaging or additives should reasonably consider nanoparticles alongside a host of other chemicals.

Overall in considering exposure to nanoparticles we have to think about relative scales. The amount of nanoparticles to which we are exposed through food packaging or additives is dwarfed by our exposure coming from the exhaust of internal combustion engines, dust from sand on the beach, or bushfires. Given the known toxicity of man-made nanoparticles in vehicle exhaust the most pressing health concerns suggest the need for improved air pollution controls before concerns about food packaging become significant.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 4:42pm

Professor (Adj) Andrew Bartholomaeus is a consultant toxicologist with adjunct professor appointments at the School of Pharmacy, University of Canberra and the Therapeutic Research Unit, School of Medicine, University of Queensland and has previously been the chief toxicologist for the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the General Manager of the Risk Assessment Branch of FSANZ

The recent reviews conducted for FSANZ of nano-sized materials in food and food packaging draw conclusions largely consistent with the overall body of evidence and with previous considerations by other regulatory agencies. The human diet naturally contains material in the nano-metre size range and nanoparticulate material, such as silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide, has been a component of some foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals for many decades. Regardless of the particle size of soluble food components, once dissolved they are indistinguishable from traditional materials. Although the safety of any food additive requires, and receives, careful assessment by regulatory bodies prior to approval, overall the safety or otherwise of food additives and packaging components generally has very little to do with particle size and to date no toxicological effect unique to nano-particulates following oral administration has been identified.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 3:59pm

News for:

New Zealand

Media contact details for this story are only visible to registered journalists.