On 25 March, in the first reading of the new Novel Foods Directive, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) overwhelmingly voted in favour of setting stringent new rules for the safety assessment of foods produced used nanotechnology (‘nanofoods’). The directive states that nanofoods may only be placed on the market after being subject to an approved nano-specific, standardised, safety assessment that is free of animal-testing. As the tests for such an assessment do not exist yet, the amended novel food directive constitutes a de facto moratorium on sales of nano food in the European Union.This must now be agreed by the national governments represented in the Council of the European Union.

Members of the European Parliament also voted in favour of mandatory labelling of manufactured nanomaterial ingredients in foods and of their ethical and environmental assessment.

The definition used in the novel food directive states that “nanomaterial means an intentionally manufactured material with one or more external dimensions or an internal structure, of order of 100 nm or less”.

A 2008 report by Friends of the Earth found that internationally at least 104 foods, food ingredients, food packaging and contact materials, kitchen goods and agricultural products now contain manufactured nanomaterials. In the absence of mandatory labelling, this is likely to represent a very small fraction of the actual number of products on sale.

The European Parliament’s support for a de facto moratorium on the commercial use of nanotechnology in foods is a wakeup calls to Australian regulators that are taking a cavalier approach to the risks of nanofoods.

Just a few weeks ago in its new Scientific Opinion on the potential risks arising from nanotechnologies and nanoscience on food and feed safety the Scientific Committee of the European Food Safety Authority warned that: “risk assessment processes are still under development with respect to characterisation and analysis of [manufactured nanomaterials] in food and feed…. Under these circumstances, any individual risk assessment is likely to be subject to a high degree of uncertainty. This situation will remain so until more data on and experience with testing of [manufactured nanomaterials] become available”.”

The European Parliament has now said that until risk assessment processes for nanomaterials can be validated, nanofoods should not be sold. Given the serious yet poorly understood health and environmental risks of nanomaterials, this support for a de facto moratorium is a sensible and much-needed measure.

The assertion by Food Standards Australia New Zealand that current risk assessment processes are adequate for nanomaterials must now be questioned.

The press release from the European Parliament can be viewed at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/expert/infopress_page/067-52498-082-03-13-911-20090324IPR52497-23-03-2009-2009-false/default_en.htm