His comments came as the European Commission's independent Scientific Committee for Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks launched a public consultation on the scientific basis for the definition of nanomaterials.
Speaking in a debate in the House of Lords last night on its Science and Technology Committee’s recent report on nanotechnologies and food, Lord Krebs said: “For regulatory purposes, the definition of nanoparticles should focus not on size alone… but also on functionality; that is, how the nanoscaled material interacts with the human body.
“The key question for risk assessment and therefore for regulation is whether nanoscaling a material changes its properties in such a way as to have a potentially toxic effect on the body. We urge the government to take forward this matter of definition in Europe.”
As to whether the current regulatory regime would ensure that foods containing nanoparticles were properly scrutinised, he said: “There is a lack of clarity about when a novel nanoscaled food would be considered a novel food under the regulations, because it depends on definitions.
“The second difficulty… arises under any food legislation... It concerns whether the gaps in scientific knowledge would enable the appropriate regulator… adequately to assess risks.”
Lord Methuen, meanwhile, said he was “still concerned that not enough is known about the impact of nanoparticles in the gut, including the long-term consequences of their ingestion into the body, and on foetal growth”.
However, Earl Howe, parliamentary under secretary of state in the Department of Health, said a guidance document from the European Food Safety Authority on the risk assessment of nanomaterials would provide useful “practical recommendations on how to assess applications made by industry for the use of engineered nanomaterials”.
He added: “This would apply to food additives, enzymes, flavourings, food contact materials, novel foods, food supplements, feed additives and pesticides.”
A first draft was due to be completed this month and would be subject to public consultation before it was finalised, he said.
Communication and transparency
Much of the debate focused on how to prevent nanotechnology from turning into a PR disaster for the food industry.
Being as transparent as possible was critical, said Krebs: “By keeping quiet about nanotechnologies, the food industry leaves a communication vacuum into which pressure groups and/or inaccurate media reporting will happily step.”
But labelling nanoparticles – something MEPs recently voted for under proposed revisions to the Novel Food Regulation – was not helpful, argued Krebs.
“We did not see an advantage in labelling foods that contain nanomaterials, as we could not see what consumers would do with such information when shopping in the supermarket.”
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve, however, 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.”