2.4.3 Drivers and Barriers to Innovation
The most significant challenges in the Agrifood sector today are to increase the efficiency of agriculture and utility of food and at the same time to ensure their safety for human being and for the environment.
The food industry is ultimately driven by profitability, which is consequent on gaining consumer acceptance by offering added-value in terms of quality, freshness, new tastes, flavours, textures, safety or reduced cost.
Food companies are also looking out for new technologies to improve the nutritional value, shelf-life and traceability of their products.
They are also aiming to develop improved tastes, reduce the amount of salt, sugar, fat and preservatives, address food-related illnesses (e.g. obesity and diabetes), develop targeted nutrition for different lifestyles and aging population, and maintain sustainability of food production, processing and food safety.
Many of the current nanotechnology applications in the food sector appear to have emerged from related sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics a nutraceuticals. The boundaries between food, medicine and cosmetics are already obscure, and the advent of nanomaterials, which can interact with biological entities at a near-molecular level, is likely to further blur these boundaries. Some food and cosmetic companies are known to be collaborating to develop cosmetic nutrition supplement.
Estimates of the current global market size and the number of companies involved in the nanofood sector are varied. This reflects the difficulty in obtaining the exact information due to commercial and environmental sensitivities.
Such sensitivities have led to a number of food corporations, who were, until a few years ago, at the forefront of food nanotechnology R&D, to disassociate themselves from publicity in this field and becoming very protective of their activities in this area. This is the case of Kraft Foods' the Nanotek Consortium that was established in 2000, than was renamed the "Interdisciplinary Network of Emerging Science and Technologies" (INEST). Now it is sponsored by Altria, and its single webpage makes no mention of food at all.
A lot of the currently available information is aimed at projecting the "magical potential" of nanotechnologies when applied to food or food packaging, rather than "real" products and applications that are available now or in a few years time.
CIAA which represents the food and drink industry in EU launched in 2005 the European Technology Platform "Food for Life". The Strategic Research Agenda for this ETP includes nanotechnologies.
The main possible barriers, which could hamper the future development of nanotechnologies in Agrifood sector, are the perception of new technologies in food by the public and regulations applied to food safety.
It is necessary to gain confidence of consumers in nanotechnology. Public should be assured that Food Safety Authorities led by EFSA oversee safety of nanotechnology applications in Agrifood sector. This should avoid a negative attitude of public to nanotechnology.
For the food chain in particular, comprehensive and stringent safety rules are in place. Their scope covers the possible specific risks from nanotech applications. In the EU the General Food Law lays down the obligation for operators to put on the market only safe food. Furthermore, for certain food categories, such as novel food, food additives and food contact materials, detailed provisions concerning pre-marketing authorisation or inclusion into a positive list, are laid down.
Whereas DG SANCO's non-food Scientific Committees are involved in the general safety assessment of nanotechnology, the risk assessment of the use of nanotech in food/feed is falling within the competence of EFSA.
The most recent opinion of the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) was adopted on19 January 2009, Risk assessment of products of nanotechnologies.
In the case of nanomaterials, hazard identification and the assessment of risks to verify compliance with the legislation requires specific exposure and toxicological data, taking into account the special characteristics of nanomaterials. It is the responsibility of industry to timely identify specific hazards, make the appropriate tests and provide the specific data to the authorities and the risk assessment bodies.
The European Commission requested EFSA (Question number: EFSA-Q-2007-124a) to conduct an initial scientific opinion of the risks arising from nanoscience and nanotechnology in food and feed with respect to human health, safety and environmental quality. EFSA which started the process in November 2007 requested from industry the following information:
- Data on the safety of nanomaterials used in food and feed
- Food and feed applications and products containing or consisting of nanomaterials or produced by nanotechnology
- Methods, procedures and performance criteria used to analyse nanomaterials in food and feed
- Use patterns and exposure to humans and environment.
- Risk assessments performed on nanomaterials used in food and feed
- Toxicological data on nanomaterials used in food and feed
- Environmental studies performed on nanotechnologies and nanomaterials used in food and feed
- Other data of relevance for risk assessment of nanotechnology and nanomaterials in food and feed
Scientific Committee (SC) of EFSA adopted its scientific opinion on nanoscience and nanotechnologies in relation to food and feed safety on 10 February 2009. In this opinion SC has concluded that established international approaches to risk assessment can also be applied to ENM. The SC also concluded that a case-by-case approach would be necessary and that, in practice, current data limitations and a lack of validated test methodologies could make risk assessment of specific nano products very difficult and subject to a high degree of uncertainty.
Opinion of EFSA focuses on the use of nanotechnologies, particularly ENMs, in the food and feed chain. It elaborates on approaches and methodologies available for risk assessment of these very small particles but does not address any specific applications of particular ENMs. The European Commission (EC) asked for this opinion because consideration needs to be given as to whether existing risk assessment approaches can be appropriately applied to this new technology.
The EFSA's SC recommends that additional research and investigation is needed to address the many current uncertainties and data limitations. Specific recommendations include the following:
- Investigating the interaction and stability of ENMs in food and feed, in the gastro-intestinal tract and in biological tissues.
- Developing and validating routine methods to detect, characterise and quantify ENMs in food contact materials, food and feed.
Developing, improving and validating test methodologies to assess toxicity of ENMs (including reliability and relevance of test methods). (The EFSA Journal (2009) 958, 1-39)
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