The highest-ranked health official in the EU executive has hit out at lobby groups who stoke fear of nanotechnology. Robert Madelin, director-general at the European Commission’s health and consumer affairs directorate, said it was “irresponsible” to use panic in order to attract attention.
Madelin said conflicting messages emanating from NGOs, industry and academia are fuelling confusion among the public about a new technology with significant potential.
“We are very frustrated when people come out with contradictory messages. It’s a disaster. Why would the man in the street have any confidence in the system?,” he told a nanotechnology conference in Brussels hosted by the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD).
He said further problems in communicating about nanotechnology arise when stakeholders work with different definitions. The industry currently defines nanoparticles as being smaller than 100 nanometres, while some consumer groups include particles of less than 300nm.
“The consumer movement should invest in the expertise needed to support honest discussion with industry and academia. Some actors are credible in this already, but others do not have access to that expertise yet,” Madelin said.
He urged civic society to take a “more responsible and networked approach” to public communication on nanomaterials, highlighting instances where NGOs and business groups have competed for airtime by releasing reports on the same day.
“This is not a battle between actors – we’re in this together,” he said.
Madelin also suggested that “unorganised citizens” are more positive than negative about nanotechnology, but activists have driven up concern.
“We want consumers to be able to enjoy the benefits of nanotechnology. This range of technologies holds potential gain for society’s needs, and we are pretty confident that the game is worth the prize. We see emerging uses, credible close-to-market uses in areas such as drug delivery,” he told the conference.
Asked whether he was confident that food currently on the shelves in European supermarkets was safe, the senior EU official said he was.
Axel Singhofen, advisor to the Green/EFA political group in the European Parliament, said he was shocked by Madelin’s claims that food is safe, given the absence of data. Singhofen said the European Parliament has taken a more precautionary approach than the European Commission by insisting on a “no data, no market” approach before allowing products to be sold in Europe.
Madelin responded by saying that he does not believe that a moratorium on nanotechnology – which some NGOs have called for – is easier to enforce than proposed new labelling requirements. “We have a moratorium on hormones in beef but it is not easy to enforce,” he said.
He noted that the European Food Safety Authority is often behind schedule in completing its work due to funding issues, and said fees may be needed if pre-market testing is desirable. “Pharmaceutical companies pay, so why not those who want to put novel foods on the market?,” he said.
Dr Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said science should inform the debate on nanotechnology.
He appealed to regulators and consumer groups to stick to scientific facts when debating the merits of nanotechnology. “We must listen to science. We cannot afford to speculate beyond what science can tell us,” he said.
Maynard said current regulations governing nanotechnology on both sides of the Atlantic are “stressed”.