by Jake Meyer
Here in the U.S. we like our food fast, cheap, and in large portions. Other than that, we don’t particularly care what’s in our food – whether it’s meat from genetically-modified animals, genetically-modified corn which has been found to cause cancer in rats, or nanoparticles. The European Union is a little more conscious of what their citizens ingest and the European Parliament has called for a ban on meat and milk made from cloned animals and their offspring. The European Parliament has also called for a moratorium on the use of nano-sized ingredients in food until risk assessments can be made.
European Parliament novel foods rapporteur Kartika Liotard commented on the reasoning behind the ban of meat and milk from cloned animals: “A clear majority in the European Parliament supports ethical objections to the industrial production of cloned meat for food. Cloned animals suffer disproportionately highly from illnesses, malformations and premature death.” French Member of European Parliament, Corinne Lepage voiced the concern that these cloning techniques also “raise serious issues about animal welfare and reduction of biodiversity, as well as ethical concerns.”
While European Parliament has raised concerns with the health and welfare of cloned animals as well as reduction of biodiversity and ethical concerns, the U.S. has focused on the question of cloned animals from the perspective of safety to the consumer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers meat and milk products from cloned animals are safe to consume, at least from animals that are healthy. The FDA’s report on the risks of cloned animal food concluded: “Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any subtle hazards that might indicate food-consumption risks in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats.” So although cloned animals have a much higher rate of illnesses and malformations, when the animals are born healthy, the FDA has found no special consumption risks.
The European Parliament is also seeking to regulate the addition of nanoparticles – particles so small, that 1000 particles could fit on the width of a human hair – in the food supply. Unlike the U.S., where the official position of the FDA is that nanoparticles aren’t currently entering our food supply, the European Parliament has recognized that nanoparticles are all ready used in food and food packaging. The European Parliament voted to subject nano-sized ingredients to regulation through the EUs novel foods framework, and has called for a moratorium until risk assessments proved nano-sized ingredients to be safe. The Parliament also voted to require clear labels on food to identify the approved nano-sized ingredients contained.
Nano-sized ingredients exhibit new properties, such as mechanical, optical, electrical, chemical, or magnetic properties that aren’t present in the macro-sized versions. These new properties can cause the nano-sized ingredient to have a very different biological impact. Current Food and Drug Administration practice allows nanoscale food ingredient to bypass regulation if they are designated as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The problem is that the GRAS designation for the ingredient is based off of the macro-sized version of the ingredient. GRAS notification is voluntary and companies are not required to identify nanomaterials in their GRAS substances. Companies have an incentive to designate ingredients as GRAS, because ingredients with this designation can bypass costly health testing.
Titanium dioxide is a good example of how possibly dangerous nanoparticles can skirt FDA regulations and find themselves in our food. The FDA considers titanium dioxide a food ingredient that is “generally recognized as safe.” Yet, research indicates that nano-sized titanium dioxide appears to be anything but safe. Research by Bénédicte Trouiller at UCLA found that nano-titanium dioxide mixed in with the drinking water of rats was damaging or destroying the rats’ DNA and chromosomes. The DNA damage Trouiller observed can be “linked to all the big killers of man, namely cancer, heart disease, neurological disease and aging.” Nanoparticles like nano-titanium dioxide are being added to our food without properly determining if they are safe for human consumption.
The European Parliament is taking precautions and considering the dangers and ethics of introducing these new technologies in the food supply and the U.S. should take note and consider some of the same questions the European Parliament are asking. The consumption of milk and meat from genetic clones has been deemed to be safe, but consideration hasn’t been given in the U.S. to the ethics of a process that results in many more sickly and deformed animals or to the wisdom of creating cloned animals that could destroy the biodiversity of animal populations. The European Parliament has also called for a moratorium on using nanotechnology in food until nano-ingredients have been proven safe. Studies have indicated that many nanoparticles may not be safe for consumption – the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has published more than 170 peer-reviewed studies that indicate that different nanoparticles are potentially dangerous. The FDA would be wise to stop pretending that nanoparticles aren’t currently in our food supply and to call for a moratorium on the use of nanoparticles in food until risk assessments prove them to be safe for consumption. It would be tragic to later find that a commonly used and popular nano-ingredient caused disease in humans.