EU food safety watchdog puzzled by nanotech risks

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Uncertainties in detecting and measuring levels of nanomaterials could make risk assessment of some nano products extremely difficult, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The agency is calling for a case-by-case approach to determining the risks associated with engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), adding that there is limited knowledge of current usage levels and likely exposure products in the food area. 

In its newly-published opinion on the potential risks arising from nanotechnologies in the food and feed chain, the food safety watchdog says available data on oral exposure to specific ENMs is "extremely limited". 

EFSA's scientific committee concluded that established international approaches to risk assessment can also be applied to engineered nanomaterials, but says a lack of validated test methodologies could make risk assessment of specific nanoproducts "very difficult and subject to a high degree of uncertainty". 

The authority's opinion comes in response to a request from the European Commission which questioned whether existing risk assessment approaches can be appropriately applied to the fast-developing field of nanotechnology. A draft strategic plan was published in October and was followed by a public consultation period, which ended on 1 December (EurActiv 7/10/09). 

EFSA recommends that additional research and investigation is needed to address the many current uncertainties and data limitations, with a particular focus on the following areas: 

  • The interaction and stability of ENMs in food and feed, in the gastro-intestinal tract and in biological tissues; 
  • The need for the development of routine methods to detect, characterise and quantify ENMs in food contact materials, food and feed, and; 
  • Improvements of test methodologies to assess toxicity of ENMs (including reliability and relevance of test methods). 

Prof Vittorio Silano, chair of EFSA's scientific committee, said the issue is a priority for the authority, announcing that an expert group will be established to monitor emerging scientific data. 

"In principle it is possible to undertake risk assessments in this emerging scientific area by making use of available international approaches. However, given current data gaps and limitations in a number of cases, it may be very difficult to provide fully satisfactory conclusions."

He said EFSA will take a "cautious case-by-case approach and looks forward to further data and research becoming available to help inform future scientific opinions". 

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