A recent Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) survey of packaging manufacturers and the food industry reveals that FSANZ is failing to protect consumers from the risks associated with the use of nanomaterials in food packaging.

Nanomaterials are being increasingly used in food packaging – posing potential health risks – and yet to date FSANZ has taken no action to ensure these products are safe.

FSANZ’s own summary of the responses to the survey, tabled in response to recent Senate Estimates questions, concludes that “the standards in the [Food Standards] Code are ‘largely irrelevant'” and that “Australia is viewed as not having any legislation for packaging in contact with food”. Industry also raised concerns about the “lack of legislative requirements regarding the safety of unknown, new and emerging packaging materials.”

According to FSANZ’s summary: “the majority of respondents (60–80%) indicated that the current requirements for packaging in the Code are inadequate (‘minimalistic at best’) or not suitably specific for them to manage risks and do not meet the requirements of their customers.”

Apparently as a result of the response to this survey, FSANZ recently announced it intends to conduct a review investigating chemical migration from packaging into food – in order to identify and manage any risks.

Friends of the Earth’s recent report on nanotechnology and food – Way too little – revealed that FSANZ is not just failing consumers when it comes to food packaging. Nanomaterials are used in a wide range of food and food contact materials including appliances, coatings used on kitchen surfaces, cutlery, cutting, boards, baby bottles and refrigerators – all of which are effectively unregulated, untested and unlabelled.

A variety of nanomaterials are used in packaging and food contact materials, including titanium dioxide, titanium nitride, carbon black, silicon dioxide, aluminium, silver, gold, chlorine-dioxide and zinc oxide. The quantity of packaging and food contact materials containing nanomaterials is growing rapidly.

The absence of a register of nanomaterials means that currently we have no way of knowing with any certainty how many packaging and food contact materials in Australia contain nanomaterials, which nanomaterials, and with which foods they are coming into contact.

Nanomaterials are generally used in food packaging to improve the barrier functions of food packaging − to reduce gas and moisture exchange and UV light exposure and to extend the shelf-life of products. Nanomaterials such as nano-silver are also used in food contact materials as biocides to kill microbes.

The extent of migration of chemicals from packaging varies depending on the chemicals used, the nature of the packaging and the chemical properties of the food. Because of their smaller size and greater reactivity, nanomaterials are likely to be particularly prone to migration. Studies have shown that migration of nanomaterials can occur, but there is still insufficient data to draw broad conclusions.

Nanomaterials are generally more chemically reactive than larger particles of the same chemicals and are much more likely to be taken up into our cells and tissues than larger particles. Numerous studies have shown that nanoparticles can be absorbed through the intestine and can accumulate in the liver, kidney, spleen, lung and brain.

There is a growing body of peer-reviewed research indicating potentially serious health concerns with some nanomaterials. Nanoparticles have been associated with immune dysfunction and colon cancer and there is evidence that nanoparticles may remain in the body for extended periods.

Dr Janet Muncke estimates that that there are around 6,500 chemicals known to be used in packaging but there are also a “number of unknown substances as a result of reaction, by-products, breakdown products and impurities, and we need to get a better understanding of what they are and what their toxicity is.” The rapidly increasing use of nanomaterials – generally poorly understood − will only further complicate this assessment.

While the decision by FSANZ to examine more closely the question of migration in food packaging is welcome – if overdue – it does raise disturbing questions regarding the way in which FSANZ makes decisions to address emerging issues of concern to public health.

This decision to conduct a review was clearly driven by industry discontent, not by scientific or health concerns. FSANZ is lagging far behind the EU in addressing the health concerns associated with the use of nanomaterials in food packaging. Currently, there is no specific standard or regulation pertaining to nanomaterials in food packaging or food contact materials except a general – and virtually unenforceable − obligation on retailers “to ensure their products are safe.”

Europe has had nano-specific provisions for packaging since 2011 (EC10/2011).

The FSANZ inquiry into migration won’t have a recommendation until mid-2016 and a gazetted regulation, if regulation is decided upon, by February 2017.

Requiring substantial evidence of safety before the commercial release of foods or food contact materials containing nanomaterials is neither impossible nor an unreasonable standard. In 2004 the UK Royal Society called for intentional release of nanomaterials “to be prohibited until appropriate research has been undertaken and it can be demonstrated that the potential benefits outweigh the risk”. Unfortunately, that call has been in the main ignored for over a decade.

Instead we have seen rapid commercialisation and a regulatory system that hasn’t even required the basic steps that would allow it to understand and track the industry it is charged with regulating.

Once a product is on the market and research raises concerns, regulatory intervention is slower and weaker than if safety testing occurs before a market is created. Industry resistance is understandably greater once they have an established market. Tobacco is the classic, but certainly not the only example.

Industry traditionally claims that pre-market safety testing constitutes unnecessary regulation and will kill innovation. However, a recent report by the European Environment Agency investigated the extent to which regulators respond to early warnings with over-regulation. It rarely happens and when there is early regulatory intervention “contrary to conventional perception, preventive measures do not strangle innovation.” We are far more likely to see lack of response to early and late warnings, often with severe and costly consequences.

If FSANZ is serious about ensuring that public health isn’t at risk from nanomaterials in food packaging and food contact materials, it should put a moratorium on the release and use of those materials until a full safety review is completed.

Jeremy Tager is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth’s Emerging Tech Project.