But it is not in favour of logos alerting shoppers to the presence of nanomaterials, which “could be seen as risk warnings”, said the firm.
In a round table debate facilitated by Food Standards Agency (FSA) chief scientist Andrew Wadge, Unilever R&D director, regulatory affairs, consumer confidence and sustainability, Charles-Francois Gaudefroy, said transparency was vital.
“Unilever’s business is about selling to individual consumers, and we want them to be aware of whether our products contain nanotechnology or not.”
But it was important to establish the purpose of labels before ploughing ahead, he stressed: “We support labelling provisions where they provide meaningful specific information to consumers.”
His comments echoed those of British Retail Consortium director of food and consumer policy Andrew Opie, who told the House of Lords’ science and technology committee last year that the food industry was not opposed in principle to labelling foods containing engineered nanomaterials.
However, given that nanomaterials already undergo a safety assessment before being approved for use, the purpose and value of labelling needed to be established.
Gaudefroy added: “We spend a lot of money talking to consumers in focus groups. And at the end of the day we offer a choice, and the easiest decision for our consumers is not to pick the product.”
During the round table event, which was attended by representatives from the Soil Association, Which?, physicist Richard Jones and Sandy Lawrie from the FSA, Gaudefroy said Unilever did not believe that standalone legislation on nanotechnologies was necessary.
However, Unilever did support “the evolution, where necessary, of the current legislative framework based on scientific risk assessment”, said Gaudefroy.
The key element in any legislative framework was a definition of what constituted an engineered nanomaterial, he stressed.
“Several factors need to be taken into account: particle size: the emerging international standards propose a 100-nanometre threshold; deliberate engineering; digestibility for nanomaterials used in foods and solubility in conditions of use for materials used in home/personal care products; the characteristic properties of the nanomaterial compared to its non-nano forms.”
Only a comprehensive consideration of all these elements would allow “meaningful and enabling legislation”, he argued.
Clear consumer benefits
While ‘nano’ had positive connotations in Asia, European consumers were more wary, he suggested. “In the US it’s more or less like Europe.”
Being able to demonstrate clear consumer benefits was therefore vital if the technology were to succeed, he said. “Nanotechnology is difficult and expensive, so you have to deliver a real benefit to actually have a product that is worth it. But we believe there is considerable potential for benefits through the application of specific nanotechnologies for healthier food and better home and personal care products.
“Protection of the food’s quality, i.e. biological, the condition of the food through, for example, packaging that is enhanced via nano – that’s clearly one area where we can see a benefit. And that’s a clear direction for research.
“But there’s also the issue of the protection of nutrients. There are many areas in the world…where hunger and nutrition are problems that affect the population. If nano can give part of a solution, great.”
Exciting range of benefits
Nanotechnology promised an exciting range of benefits from the targeted release of nutrients to antimicrobial biofilms and lighter-weight packaging able to block out oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture, Dr Michael Knowles, vice president, global scientific and regulatory affairs at Coca-Cola, told the House of Lords committee last year.
Other interesting applications included nano-sensors that could detect pathogens and nano-sieves that could purify water in developing countries.
In response to claims that nanomaterials were already in foods without undergoing rigorous safety assessments, Knowles said all CIAA and FDF members had been issued with guidance to remind them of the relevant legislation covering nanomaterials, notably the Novel Food Regulation, which applies to new ingredients produced using novel processes or those with novel properties (as a result of their reduced size, for example).