No one is expecting food manufacturers to share commercially sensitive information about nanotechnology projects, but adopting a policy of radio silence on the subject will only reinforce the perception that they have something to hide, according to experts gathered at an industry workshop.
Much of the debate at last week's workshop, which was organised by Leatherhead Food Research (LFR), focused on how to prevent nanotechnology from turning into a PR disaster for the food industry.
And the only way to do this was to talk about it openly and honestly, suggested LFR consultant microscopist Kathy Groves, joint project leader of LFR’s NanoWatch initiative.
“We should be strong and brave and open with the outside world and talk about the benefits of nanotechnology. Of course you have got to respect company confidentiality, but in terms of general concepts and applications, there is a lot we can do to keep consumers informed.”
Nanotechnology promised an exciting range of benefits to consumers from the targeted release of nutrients to antimicrobial biofilms and lighter-weight packaging able to block out oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture, said Groves.
Other interesting applications included nano-sensors that could detect pathogens, nano-encapsulation of natural food colours and other bioactives, and nanocellulose for moister bread, crispier crackers and juicier meat products, she said.
But it was also important to explain to consumers that "we have been eating and processing natural nanoparticles for thousands of years".
By talking about natural nano structures in everyday foods from starches to chocolate, food manufacturers could demystify nanotechnology, agreed Professor Kees de Kruif from the University of Utrecht: “Mother Nature already operates on the nanoscale.”
Dr Anna Gergely, director of legal firm Steptoe & Johnson, also urged the industry to “come out with a positive message, because if you don’t, there is going to be a negative message coming out from somewhere else.”
Lord Krebs: Transparency is key
Their comments were echoed by former Food Standards Agency chairman Lord Krebs, who told peers in a recent debate in the House of Lords that silence was a mistake.
“By keeping quiet about nanotechnologies, the food industry leaves a communication vacuum into which pressure groups and/or inaccurate media reporting will happily step.”
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve also urged the industry to be as open as possible: “The way to avert another disaster for another British industry is not to be economical with communication about research on products that incorporate engineered particles at the nanoscale.”
Lord Crickhowell added: “Large firms that should have learnt lessons from the GM disaster, for a variety of reasons, seemed to be continuing down the route that led to the disaster.”
FDF: Industry is not being secretive
However, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) food safety executive Keneth Chinyama said the widespread perception that the food industry was being ‘secretive’ about nanotechnology was unfair.
He added: “The comments [in the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee’s recent report on nanotechnologies and food] about a lack of transparency were unfortunate.”