A discreet but important lobbying battle is currently being fought in Brussels over the labelling of nano ingredients in food products. Nano food ingredients are made from materials at a scale so small that this gives them very interesting properties for a wide range of applications, but also raises largely unanswered questions about their health and environmental impacts, making consumer information a key parameter at this stage of the technology’s development. Some in the European Parliament are mobilising to reject a technical text by the Commission complementing a 2011 food regulation, because this text would exclude all existing food additives used in their nano form from being labelled. The food additives industry is lobbying MEPs with scare tactics, claiming that the Commission’s text is required to avoid labelling of foods that have been produced for decades with conventional processes such as mayonnaise or instant coffee. Yet in fact, this is misleading as the 2011 regulation already clearly states it only covers nano materials manufactured with the intention to obtain effects specific to the nano scale. The final vote in the Parliament will take place next Wednesday 12 March.
Nanomaterials are by definition materials whose size is in the nanometer scale (1-100 nm typically), the scale of most known viruses. Nanomaterials are increasingly attracting attention and research for a large range of applications – medical, military, industrial... – because the nanoscale often confers different properties to materials than they have in their bulk form. This difference however is also the source of great uncertainties about these compounds’s health and environmental impacts. Since many nanomaterials are already used in commercial products including food, labelling is seen as a way of giving a choice to consumers pending more research is done.
The EU’s 2011 Regulation on Food Information to Consumers (1169/2011, “FIC”) states that “All ingredients present in the form of engineered nanomaterials shall be clearly indicated in the list of ingredients. The names of such ingredients shall be followed by the word ’nano’ in brackets.” A rule that seems clear enough, yet the European Commission was delegated the power to define “engineered nanomaterials” more precisely. The Commission published its criteria, in a delegated act, in December 2013 to “amend and clarify” the 2011 Food Information Regulation.
The problem is that these new Commission criteria seem uniquely restrictive. The Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Consumers (SANCO), in charge of the file, came up with criteria so narrow that only new additives will be labeled, arguing that “indicating such food additives [ed: already approved in the EU] in the list of ingredients followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets may confuse the consumers as it may suggest that those additives are new while in reality they have been used in foods in that form for decades”. This is in line with the lobbying of the food additives industry, which disingenously argues (see below) that unintentionally produced or naturally occurring nanoparticles will lead to unnecessary labelling of foods whose recipe hasn’t changed for decades.