The question of how to define and label nano-scale ingredients will return to the drawing board, after the European Parliament rejected the Commission’s proposed regulation on Wednesday.
The Parliament’s food safety committee had already rejected the proposed labelling regulation last month, on the grounds that it would have exempted food additives that were already on the market. In a full European Parliament vote, passed by 402 votes to 258, with 14 abstentions, MEPs rejected the regulation for the same reason, and the Commission will now have to put forward a new proposal.
Greens MEP Carl Schlyter, who was responsible for the Parliament’s scrutiny of the draft law, said the European Parliament had repeatedly called for blanket nano labelling, so it was surprising that the Commission had submitted a weaker proposal.
“Consumers have the right to know and make their own choice. They do not want the Commission to do that for them. That is why today's vote is important,” he said.
The Commission had proposed that new nano-scale additives would be designated by the word ‘nano’ in brackets in ingredients lists. However, it said labelling existing nano-scale ingredients in the same way would be irrelevant, and “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”.
The European Parliament said in the resolution passed yesterday that this justification was “erroneous and irrelevant”.
Conventional vs. engineered
Trade association FoodDrinkEurope has pointed out that many common foods, such as homogenised milk, contain nanoparticles, and says there is a need to distinguish between their presence as a result of traditional processing and those that have been deliberately engineered to behave differently from their conventional counterparts.
Reacting to the vote, it said: "The proposed regulation would have provided a clear, understandable, science-based and enforceable definition of intentionally produced or ‘engineered’ nanomaterials. In the absence of such a definition, there will now be much uncertainty for food business operators as regards what should be labelled as ‘nano’ and what should not. This in turn could cause great confusion for consumers, potentially leading them to believe that novel processes have been used in the food manufacturing process, where in fact they have not."
Meanwhile, BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, urged the Commission to take into account the Parliament’s call for universal nano labelling when drafting a new proposal.
“The Commission should make sure its definition does not contradict the spirit of the new food labelling rules that will be effective at the end of this year,” said BEUC director, Monique Goyens. “Consumer choice should not be sacrificed for the sake of food makers’ ease of doing business.”
What’s the current situation?
Nanomaterials currently do not have any special regulation under EU law, while food manufacturers have increasingly invested in nanotechnology research. The range of potential uses for nanotech in foods is expanding rapidly. Among many others, these include improving the bioavailability of nutrients, flavour enhancement, removal of pathogens and undesirable chemicals, and in packaging to detect foodborne pathogens or spoilage.
At the moment, regulators rely instead on a range of other relevant legislation designed principally with applications other than nanotechnology in mind. Late last year, a team of UK researchers, writing in Trends in Food Science and Technology , called for labelling of nanotechnology used in food and agriculture to improve acceptance of the technology.
The term nanotechnology refers to the control of matter at an atomic or molecular scale of between one and 100 nanometres (nm) – one millionth of a millimetre.