Environmental group calls for nano-material ban in food

Environmental group Friends of the Earth has called for a ban on new nano-materials being used in foods and its packaging until risk assessments have proven the materials are safe to consume.

A report released by Friends of the Earth on Thursday said the number of products in Australia containing nano-materials was growing rapidly, despite scientific evidence suggesting these materials could accumulate in the body and cause damage, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

The report said one of the most common nanomaterials used in food is nano titanium dioxide, used as a whitener and brightener in a range of foods, including lollies, chewing gum and doughnuts. Animal studies using nano titanium dioxide show that it can damage DNA, disrupt the function of cells, interfere with the immune system, cross the intestinal tract and cause organ damage. Friends of the Earth said children between the age of 2 and 4 have been found to have the highest exposure levels.

Jeremy Tager, an author of the report said "In order to protect the health of the public you [need to] treat new technologies with a level of precaution until you've established they're safe."

Nano-materials are produced or engineered to be less than 100 nanometres. The size and shape of nano-particles gives them unique properties and behaviours, which manufacturers exploit to improve their products, but which opponents say can make them unsafe.

Friends of the Earth also want a register for products containing nano-materials and compulsory labels for nano-foods. Although the national food regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, requires producers of new foods, manufactured with nanotechnologies that present safety concerns, to undergo safety assessment before they can be sold, the definition of "new" is murky.

A Monash University law academic, Karinne Ludlow, said if a manufacturer used a traditional ingredient in its nano form, it may not be considered new and therefore may not require testing.

The food standards website said it had not received any applications to approve new nano-scale particles in food.

Ludlow said it was impossible for any regulator to test every new product against every new science.

"There's no real evidence that nano-food causes harm," Ludlow said.

A toxicologist and head of NanoSafe Australia, Paul Wright, said many of the studies that suggested nano-materials were toxic to animals or cells were exposed to much higher doses than would ever be found in foods.

In October 2012, New Zealand scientists produced hypoallergenic milk by using a genetically modified cow.

New Zealand’s largest research institute AgResearch bred the first cow able to produce high-protein milk with reduced amounts of beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), a whey component known to cause allergic reactions.

The institute's research director said further studies on the milk is needed before it can be tasted by humans, but it could eventually be produced commercially and marketed as a low allergy substitute.

A Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokeswoman said food manufacturers and suppliers were legally obliged to ensure any food entering the market was safe. 

Foods that did not comply would be investigated by state agencies, she said.


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