EXPERT INSIGHT: Nanomaterials in Food

Questions Arise in Widespread Use of Nanotechnology

Susan WilliamsAustin Wilson
Austin Wilson
Environmental Health Program, As You Sow

Susan Williams
Analyst, Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2)

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the molecular scale to create structures, tools, or products. Few scientific studies exists on the effects nanomaterials have on human health and the environment – or the risks of this emerging technology. Similarly, there are no binding regulations in the U.S. to guide industry or consumers.

The introduction of nanotechnology into food products therefore raises significant issues for both consumers and shareholders concerned that companies may use nanomaterials in their food products or packaging before studies demonstrate that such materials are safe.

To minimize this risk, As You Sow has worked with food companies since 2008 to increase understanding of how nano enters the supply chain and to develop the first framework on sourcing nanomaterials for food and food packaging. As You Sow has also surveyed the industry and tested products to gather information on the use of nanomaterials in foods. Some of the products tested were Dunkin’ Brands donuts and results conclusively show that nano TiO2 is present. The company’s failure to acknowledge this led As You Sow to ask Dunkin’ Brands for a report on its policies on public health concerns regarding nanomaterials. Unlike previous nanofood resolutions, which were withdrawn due to productive dialogues, this will be the first Nano in Food resolution to go to a vote.

Nanotechnology is already more prevalent in other industries. A forthcoming report from Si2 looks at the risks and opportunities investors and companies face regarding nanotechnologies. Hundreds of consumer products containing nanomaterials already are in the marketplace, and more advanced nanotechnologies hold tremendous promise in the fields of healthcare, energy systems, and information technology. At the same time, some nanomaterials carry unique risks stemming from characteristics and properties that occur only at the nanoscale.

The Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute (IRRCi) commissioned and funded the report, which will review the major scientific and regulatory issues in play, and explain the contrasting approaches taken by regulators in the United States and in the European Union. The report also analyzes disclosures of nanotechnology products, opportunity and risk by S&P 500 companies. Si2 reviewed Form 10-Ks filed with the SEC and corporate responsibility and sustainability reports. Si2 also identified products of S&P 500 companies included in a Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory compiled by a project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Science & Technology Innovation Program.

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