Robert Falkner
Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

Today, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a major report on nanotechnologies in the food sector (available here). It includes detailed recommendations for the responsible development of the technology and calls on the government to work to close existing knowledge gaps about the risks of nanomaterials and strengthen regulatory oversight.

The report by the House of Lords committee is based on extensive consultation with experts and stakeholders, including a series of hearings and meetings that the Peers held over the last nine months. It looks at the commercial opportunities that arise from the use of nanotechnologies in food production and distribution but also considers the potential risks for human health and the environment. Covering areas from regulation to risk communication and public engagement, the report concludes with 32 recommendations for policy-makers.

This landmark report reinforces some of the key recommendations contained in the Chatham House report Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies: Towards Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation. The report, a collaboration with the London School of Economics, Environmental Law Institute and Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, highlights the need for greater international coordination in regulating nanotechnologies and identifies the potential for, but also barriers to, transatlantic cooperation and convergence.

The Lords report will be widely noted and provides an important impetus towards the development of a more robust and transparent system for regulating the commercial use of nanomaterials. Although there are as yet only a small number of food products on the market that contain nanomaterials, ongoing research in this area suggests a wide range of future applications in the food sector. The Peers argue that in order for society to avail of the technology's commercial opportunities, a more robust and transparent system of risk management and communication is needed. They criticise the food industry's reluctance to inform the public about its activities in this area and call for the UK's Food Standards Agency to create and maintain a list of products containing nanomaterials as they enter the market.

In similar vein, the Chatham House report recommends the creation of a mandatory register for nanomaterials in commercial use. A review of voluntary reporting initiatives in the UK and US suggests that these have failed to fill existing knowledge gaps, and that a move towards mandatory reporting is now necessary and order for regulators to obtain comprehensive information about the existence of nanomaterials in the market.

The House of Lords committee also urges the government to work more closely with other governments in Europe and internationally 'to ensure that knowledge gaps in research related to the health and safety risks of nanomaterials are filled quickly without duplication of effort.' Noting persisting uncertainties about the potential health effects of nanomaterials, the Peers call for increased research into the toxicological effects of nanomaterials for human consumption. They urge the UK government and EU authorities to include a workable definition of nanomaterials in relevant food regulation to ensure that any nanomaterial used in a food product be subjected to a full risk assessment.

The Chatham House report echoes these findings on the uncertain knowledge base on the environmental and health risks of nanomaterials. However, while the Lords report aims primarily at a British audience, the Chatham House report addresses the European and global challenges and calls for international efforts to develop a coordinated research strategy.

In a separate publication, the team from Chatham House, LSE, Environmental Law Institute and Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies also highlight the moves currently underway in the EU to introduce more comprehensive consumer labelling requirements in the food and cosmetics sector. Whereas US authorities have to date not identified a need for nanotechnology-specific labelling, the EU is likely to move in that direction once Europe's Novel Foods legislation has been revised. (More information on this is available in the Briefing Paper, Consumer Labelling of Nanomaterials in the EU and US: Convergence or Divergence?)

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Further resources

Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies: Towards Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation
Programme Paper
Linda Breggin, Robert Falkner, Nico Jaspers, John Pendergrass and Read Porter
September 2009

Regulating Nanomaterials: A Transatlantic Agenda
Briefing Paper
Robert Falkner, Linda Breggin, Nico Jaspers, John Pendergrass and Read Porter
September 2009

Consumer Labelling of Nanomaterials in the EU and US: Convergence or Divergence?
Briefing Paper
Robert Falkner, Linda Breggin, Nico Jaspers, John Pendergrass and Read Porter, October 2009