The lifting of bans on genetically modified crops has revived the debate about the safety of the food we eat.
But the next step in industrial food production has got Australia’s food regulator bracing itself for even more controversy.
Opponents to nanotechnology say it is a much scarier prospect than GM food, and while it can make food look better and last longer, there are fears about how it might affect the human body.
The regulator now faces the difficulty of ruling when packaging becomes part of the food.
The CEO of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Steve McCutcheon, says it is called interactive packaging, where the food takes in chemicals from the packet as it sits on the shelf.
“At the moment, the shelf life of prepacked salad vegetables is fairly short, but with the application of this technology we understand that you could actually package fresh salads, and they would be fresh still after the 30-day period on the shelf,” he said.
The development that has given birth to the one-month fresh salad is called nanotechnology – working with particles thousands of times smaller that the width of a human hair.
It is not only for packaging, some companies want to use nanoparticles as ingredients in the food itself.
“We understand that a company in the United States has applied for a patent to cover the use of titanium dioxide and silicone dioxide in chocolate, in nanoparticle form, to give the surface a gloss,” he said.
“At this stage we’re aware of applications to use this technology in the marketplace, but whether that’s actually happening or not, I don’t know.”
Mr McCutcheon says the new form of technology would require pre-market approval prior to entering the market in Australia and New Zealand.
Dr Rye Senjen is researching nanotechnology for Friends of the Earth.
She says it could already be in some food we eat, and it is a bigger concern than genetically modified organisms.
“I think it’s genetically engineering on steroids, because nanotechnology has a much bigger application that will be applied to every single aspect of the food chain. It’s much more scary,” she said.
Although nanotech food has not been approved, Dr Senjen says there is no law to prevent manufacturers using their regular ingredients in nanoparticle form.
“There’s no legal requirement whatsoever to tell the regulator that now you’ve shrunk the particle size. It’s not in the regulations. You don’t even have to mention it,” she added.
She says nanoparticles are dangerous because they are small and could breach the body’s defences in ways no natural food can.
“When you ingest something and then if it can cross from the digestive system to elsewhere, well it can go anywhere,” she said.
But Mr McCutcheon believes it is too early to say there are risks.
“We don’t know yet what the hazards and risks are from its application to food, if indeed there are any hazards or risks,” he added.
Mr McCutcheon says the regulator is only just beginning to look at the global evidence on the impact of eating nanoparticles.