Is Nanotechnology a No or Go with Consumers?

Discussion
Oct 02, 2007

By Bernice Hurst, Managing Director, Fine Food Network

A survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center revealed that manufacturers considering the use of nanotechnology “for improving the nutritional content and impact of foods” as well as in packaging to extend shelf life, have a long way to go in educating consumers that it is an acceptable process.

According to the survey, only six percent of Americans said they have “heard a lot” about nanotechnology, while 70 percent have heard a little or nothing at all. Only seven percent of Americans would buy nanotechnology-enhanced food products, while only 12 percent indicated they would buy nanotech food packaging. The figures jump considerably among those who said they were confident they understood nanotechnology, with 31 percent saying they would buy nanotech food products.

“Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products has more than doubled since last year, public awareness remains disappointingly low,” David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, told Food Production Daily – USA. “Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area.”

Mr. Rejeski believes the food sector and regulators need to be more proactive in informing the public about the science, especially as consumers are worried about the potential health and environmental effects.

“The slightest bump – even a false alarm about safety or health – could undermine public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are realized,” he said.

Besides consumers, though, some scientists and other food authorities appear to need convincing. Earlier this year, Woodrow Wilson Center released a report saying that more nanotechnology regulations are needed as its possible effects on human health and the environment are still unknown. Last month, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) said nanoparticles may move inside the body and potentially lead to lung inflammation and heart problems.

At a meeting in May, SCENIHR said new risk assessment methods are needed because chemicals in their nanoparticle form have potentially very different properties than their larger physical forms.

Such assessment may not be easily achieved, however. As long ago as 2006, just-food.com reported that “expert consultant, Neville Craddock, told an Amsterdam conference that in many cases, officials will be almost entirely reliant on the good faith of food manufacturers when it comes to the verification and approval of products for the consumer market due to the practical difficulty of testing for a nanoparticle embedded in a manufactured, processed product.”

Discussion questions: As with so many other new technologies, ignorance breeds resistance. Do you think food manufacturers and regulators have to do a better job in explaining the benefits and safety of nanotechnology to consumers and even the scientific community? What do you think is the best method to get it done? What role will food retailers have in any educational effort?

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5 Comments on "Is Nanotechnology a No or Go with Consumers?"


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Li McClelland
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Li McClelland
14 years 7 months ago

It’s a conundrum. The very constituent segment which might normally be willing to wade through the information on nanotechnology to understand both its effects and benefits is the same group of shoppers who are moving more toward natural, unprocessed and “closer to the earth” foods.

Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
Guest
Roger Selbert, Ph.D.
14 years 7 months ago

“As with so many other new technologies, ignorance breeds resistance.” D’ja think?

This reminds me of the controversy over irradiation, a perfectly safe, proven, and wonderfully beneficial technology that is woefully underutilized because of baseless, mindless fear and resistance. As a result, we live with thousands of cases per year of e-coli and other illnesses that are completely avoidable and unnecessary. (And we have fruit that is picked un-ripened.) Same thing with DDT, except there, the annual death toll is literally in the millions. And that’s not even a new technology (but hysterics spouting junk science win out).

Do food manufacturers and regulators have to do a better job in explaining the benefits and safety of nanotechnology to consumers and even the scientific community? Yes, that would be nice. What is the best method to get it done? Educational efforts by all, including retailers, are warranted. We will just have to be prepared to confront the food equivalent of “truthers.”

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 7 months ago

If an ad ran that promised weight loss without aggravation or excessive cost using nanotechnology, shoppers would be thrilled and sales would not be a problem. If there was substantial safety controversy without a clear broad benefit, very slow adoption would be expected, unless there were substantial savings. Customers don’t buy technology. They buy the benefits. There can be some downside and risk, but the benefits have to be clear.

Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 7 months ago

Food manufacturers and regulators have a great opportunity and a corresponding challenge by utilizing this relatively new science. At the moment, it is a mystery to most consumers. Mystery is not a valid sales or information tool. While explaining the benefits and safety of nanotechology by food manufactures and regulators could be beneficial, I doubt that that process alone would be sufficient to gain universal acceptance with consumers in the near future. Still, the effort should be made for nanotechnology (and its projected impact on the regeneration of life’s cells); it will be an integral part of the future.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
14 years 7 months ago
I put nanotechnology in the same category as financial derivatives. You tell me that you have the “model” or the formula that will enable you to bundle sub-prime mortgages into securities with predictable risk patterns. It seems to all work until the one day we wake up and it is not working. It is the same thing with nanotechnology. First of all, it is used for a variety of purposes ranging from modifying ingredient behavior to improving the effectiveness of packaging. So you can’t just “say no to nano.” You need to rationally consider the risks of various uses. When you are dealing with ingredients directly, I think you have to ensure appropriate testing. The challenge is that no one really knows what constitutes appropriate testing. It could very well prove that some nano uses are the “asbestos of the 21st century.” I hope not. So what are manufacturers and consumers to do? First of all, I hope the manufacturers recognize the uncertainty they are dealing with and product liability insurers are probably way out… Read more »
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