Bananas are one of the most popular—and healthy—fruits in the world, but they may lose their coveted status once their peels are coated with non-safety tested, transparent Engineered Nanoscale Materials (ENMs) to retain moisture and slow spoilage. Over the last decade, extensive research and large federal and private sector investment has gone into bringing ENMs into the food supply. The widespread use of ENMs in food is projected to be big money for global food and food packaging businesses, with market estimates indicating that by 2015, nanomaterials in food packaging will be a $25 billion market.
“In agriculture, [nanotechnology] applications have been first and foremost in extending shelf life of food products,” writes Steve Suppan, Ph.D., of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit that has called for stronger federal oversight of nanotechnology. Where is this nanotechnology found? “Nanosilver [is used] to prevent growth of pathogens in meat products,” Suppan relates in one online article, “while bananas or vegetables may be given “a transparent nano-coating that will allow their shelf life to increase by a week to a month.” Suppan adds that food production belts could be coated with nano-silicon dioxide to prevent bacteria from adhering to machinery, reducing the likelihood of food contamination and cutting the costs of cleaning the machinery.
But whether or how these nano-coatings might migrate off the packages or production belts and into food or human bodies is not yet known. In one September 2011 study, Dutch researchers concluded on the basis of 10-week long oral toxicity studies with rats and mice that “nanosilica becomes bioavailable to some degree and can exert toxicity on the liver. It is not clear how the silica is absorbed and if these effects are caused by nanosilica particles, dissolved silica or a combination of these two.”
The lack of scientific understanding and publicly available data about how nanosilica is absorbed in the gastro-intestinal system made it impossible to complete a risk assessment with the high degree of certainty required for standard-setting.
Suppan stresses that “evaluating the risk of harm to consumer health by consuming ENMs can only be accomplished through the risk assessments…concerning the effects of ENMs on the gastro-intestinal system,” adding: “We don’t want to happen to nanotechnology what happened to genetically modified agriculture…I think it should be a debate in the public, and right now it’s not.”