Nanotechnology in the Food Industry

Most major food companies are not performing or funding nanotechnology research into improving food. There are some very logical applications of nanotechnology to food science, but regulatory and market pressures are limiting their exploration. Nanotechnology research and development in food science are happening primarily at universities, funded by government money. A promising near term use would be to detect and eliminate harmful bacteria in the food supply.

One reason that large food companies appear to be shying away from nano is that they have concerns about potential legislation. For example, one piece of legislation being worked on in the European Parliament may limit the sale of foods produced with nanotechnology.

Writing such legislation or regulations will be challenging because it’s difficult to restrict the presence of nanoparticles in food: Food can contain naturally occurring particles between one and one hundred nanometers in diameter, a standard definition of nanoparticles.

One option is that they might restrict the presence of only engineered nanoparticles and not naturally occurring ones. Still, the confusion and uncertainty surrounding these regulations is making the industry cautious, especially after run-ins with the general public’s perception of genetically engineered foods a few years ago.

One important area for food companies and regulators to deal with is how to keep food from becoming contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella or E. coli. Nano methods might be developed to stop pathogens from growing in food or track contaminated food to its source.

In talking with Professor John D. Flores, head of the Food Science department at Pennsylvania State University, he expressed concern that slower research into the use of nanotechnology in food might also slow the development of methods to make our food supply safer.

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