Nanomaterial in Food Packaging Facing Regulatory Obstacles: Report

Engineered nanoscale materials (ENMs), which have novel properties that could be beneficial for use in food packaging, pose new safety evaluation challenges for regulators and industry alike, according to a report released yesterday by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate, and manufacture items usually between one and 100 nanometers. A nanometer measures one-billionth of a meter; a human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers wide. Lux Research forecasts that by 2014, $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods will employ nanotechnology, or about 15 percent of total global output.

The report, written by former FDA policy official Michael R. Taylor, notes that the food-packaging industry, food companies, and consumers all share an interest in making sure that any potential safety questions are discovered, and evaluated, and resolved before packaging materials containing ENMs are placed on the market.

An examination by experts representing government, industry, and the public interest community of the paths taken by several hypothetical nanotechnology food packaging applications through the rigorous and complex regulatory system now in place, the first-of-its-kind analysis sheds light on the possible regulatory issues looming for nanotechnology-enabled packaging.

Nanotechnology cited in the report includes the use of a nanoscale antimicrobial agent affixed to the food contact surface of a plastic packaging film, as a way to prevent contamination of the packaging itself, and the use nanoscake clay "platelets" that give a plastic carbonated-beverage bottle clarity, barrier properties, and shelf life similar to those of glass, while it remains lighter in weight and less likely to break.

"The system is not widely understood, and legitimate questions have been raised about how it would apply to nanoscale substances used in food packaging," said Taylor, now a research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. "Those companies developing ENMs for use in packaging will need to work closely with FDA and EPA to make sure the questions identified in this report concerning potential risks are answered."

Consumer acceptance of nanomaterials in food packaging will depend greatly on the demonstrated benefits and safety of the new packaging products, PEN director David Rejeski pointed out.

"Clearly, nanotechnology offers tremendous opportunities for innovative developments in food packaging that can benefit both consumers and industry," observed GMA chief science officer Robert Brackett. "However, before these packaging innovations can be brought to market, we must ensure that the food-packaging industry, through working closely with government, understands the regulatory framework currently in place along with its many requirements."
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