According to a recent French peer-reviewed study, there are growing concerns that the use of nanoparticles in food is associated with an increased risk of chronic intestinal inflammation and cancer. The study found that consumption of food grade titanium dioxide (TiO2 – E171) containing nanoparticles caused pre-cancerous lesions in rats – raising serious questions about its use in food.

The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) recently completed a review of the study and concluded that further research is needed to investigate the potential health risks associated with the use of E171 that contains nanoparticles. The agency noted that studies will soon be published regarding the ability of titanium dioxide to cross the blood-brain barrier that regulators will need to consider.

ANSES also recommended “limiting exposure of workers, consumers and the environment” to nanomaterials.

The agency’s response sits in stark contrast to that of our own food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ dismissed the findings of the study in March – concluding that it had “limitations which restrict its relevance to humans.” These ‘limitations’ were not described.

FSANZ supports its claim by referring to a review it commissioned on nano titanium dioxide that was published last year. FSANZ claims this review concluded none of the nanomaterials being used in food, including TiO2, “are of health concern.” In fact, the review concluded there was insufficient evidence to assess the safety of nano titanium dioxide.

FSANZ recommends no further action – in what is now a chronic pattern of ignoring peer reviewed work that calls into question its assertions of safety.

FSANZ argues that the recent French study is contradicted by a number of studies demonstrating the safety of titanium dioxide – none of which are named and none of which apparently suffer from any of the limitations of the French study.

What neither ANSES nor FSANZ are doing is taking a precautionary approach to food safety.

Why weren’t the hazards of E171 assessed before it was allowed on the market? Why do adverse impacts never result in the withdrawal of products until they can be proven to be safe? Why does FSANZ never commission studies to fill the numerous gaps in our knowledge regarding the safety of nanomaterials in food?

If there is evidence of harm, FSANZ invariably keeps products on the market to protect commercial interests, rather than adopting a precautionary approach to protect the public.

The problem with FSANZ is not a few ‘bad’ decisions, but a systematic bias towards protecting the food industry. And it’s a problem that urgently needs to be addressed.