Are intentionally engineered nanoparticles being added to our food? We don’t know for sure – and federal food regulators aren’t helping us find out the truth.
On April 6 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to collect basic information on production, processing, exposure and available health and safety data for nanomaterials – chemical particles tens of thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. EPA said it would use the information to determine if further action to protect the public is needed under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not proposed any such rules. There is little publicly available information about nanoparticle use in food, although a 2012 investigation by E, The Environmental Magazine concluded that nanoparticles “made a quiet entrance into the nation’s food supply at least a decade ago.” We do know this: FDA’s process for regulating new food additives is woefully inadequate.
Food companies are not required to disclose whether their foods contain nanoparticles. FDA allows food manufacturers to decide if their own additives qualify for a designation called Generally Recognized As Safe, or GRAS, without ever having to notify the agency or seeking an independent evaluation by someone without a financial stake in the outcome. Numerous questionable food additives such as propylparaben and BHT are currently listed as GRAS. On April 13 the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation into how the loopholes in current law allow new additives to be added to food without telling FDA.
The FDA does not require registration or even notification. Instead, it “encourages” companies to consult with the agency in developing new additives. It is not known if any companies have self-determined that an engineered nanoparticle is safe for food, or if a company is already using an engineered nanoparticle without telling FDA.
In nonbinding recommendations published in June 2014, the FDA said it is “not aware of any food substances intentionally engineered on the nanometer scale for which there are generally available safety data sufficient” to determine whether the additive could be generally recognized as safe.
A report in 2010 by the World Health Organization predicted that nanomaterials could become common in food as ingredients in flavors, preservatives, vitamins and nutrients, food storage containers and more applications. The report said:
The very small size of nanomaterials enables dispersion of water-insoluble additives (such as colours, flavours and preservatives) in food products without the need for additional fat or surfactants. Nanosizing of bioactive substances is also claimed to give greater uptake, absorption and bioavailability in the body compared with bulk equivalents. Nanosized and nano-encapsulated ingredients and additives are used for the development of improved or new tastes, flavours and textures, and products with enhanced nutritional value. The advent of nanotechnologies has also enabled the development of innovative packaging materials, nanosensors and intervention technologies that can improve the safety, traceability and shelf life of food products.
On March 12, EWG, As You Sow and seven other advocacy groups published a policy statement that said that food companies should reveal whether they are using nanomaterials, substantiate the safety of these particles before putting them in food, label their use, and minimize worker exposures and risk. Safety must come first.