LCQ19: Nanotechnology in food

     Following is a question by the Hon Fred Li and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (December 8):


     The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) of the Government points out in its Risk in Brief published in September this year that "A major focus of application of nanotechnology in food processing involves the development of nanostructured food ingredients and additives.  This category of nanofood was being developed with claims that they offer improved taste, texture and consistency, enhanced bioavailability and allow mixing of 'incompatible' ingredients in food matrix.  Examples of nanostructured foodstuffs include spreads, ice-cream, yogurt, etc.".  Moreover, "Other indirect applications of nanotechnology in food area include the development of nanosised agrochemicals and veterinary medicines".  CFS also points out that "safety issues surrounding the use of nanotechnology in food have raised public concern".  Nevertheless, CFS only advises the trade to "ensure the products on sale are safe for human consumption", and "not to sell nanomaterials that have not undergone safety assessment".  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) given that the safety issues surrounding the application of nanotechnology in food have raised concern, whether CFS will conduct studies on this particular topic and carry out safety tests;

(b) how CFS will assist food manufacturers "not to sell nanomaterials that have not undergone safety assessment", and of the details; if no assistance will be provided, of the reasons for that; and

(c) how the Government will regulate the sale of nanofood?



     The Centre for Food Safety (CFS) released in September 2010 a study report examining the basic principles, applications and the potential health implications associated with the use of nanotechnology in the food sector, with focus on those food and food contact materials incorporated with nanomaterials.  A summary on the risk assessment approaches adopted by some major countries on this subject was also provided in the report.

     While there is currently no internationally agreed definition for nanotechnology, it generally refers to the process of controlling the size and shape of materials at the atomic and molecular scale.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) commented that the potential health and environmental risks of nanoscale materials need to be assessed before they are introduced into food as for all new materials used in food and food processing.  However, due to the lack of sufficient data and resources on the international front to allow a comprehensive understanding of the potential hazards of nanomaterials, there is currently no detailed and precise guidance for the risk assessment of nanomaterials in food.

     The research data currently available could confirm neither the superiority of nanofood materials in general nor the impact of nanotechnology on the safety of food and food contact materials.  Traders have the responsibility to obtain relevant information on and guarantee for the safety and useful value of food products from manufacturers.  Consumers should also be careful in making choices when it comes to potentially exaggerated marketing claims.

     My reply to the three-part question raised by the Hon Fred Li is as follows:

(a) Given the great differences in the properties between nanomaterials and their conventional counterparts, there is to date an absence of viable methods for precise detection and quantification of nanomaterials in food in the international arena.  Guidance or standards for testing the safety of nanofood have yet to be developed.  New data and measurement approaches are needed for the proper assessment of the safety of food and food contact materials derived from nanotechnology.  A number of national regulatory authorities and the WHO have recognised the need to develop suitable testing methods for laboratory analysis of nanomaterials. We will keep in view the development of the relevant technologies for follow-up actions.

(b) and (c) It is stipulated in the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132) that all food intended for sale in Hong Kong shall be fit for human consumption.  This provision applies to all kinds of food, including food containing nanomaterials.  Any person who is guilty of an offence under this provision shall be liable on conviction to a fine of HK $50,000 and imprisonment for six months.  The food trade has the responsibility to ensure the safety of engineered nanomaterials in their food products if they are to supply these products.  In this connection, the CFS has, through various channels, including the Trade Consultation Forum on September 10, 2010, explained to the trade its stance and recommended measures to be taken by the trade.

     While some major countries and regions including the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Mainland China have not yet formulated any specific legislation on the regulation of nanofood, nanofood is in general subject to the same public health and food safety laws that apply to other kinds of food.  We will closely monitor the international development in regulations over nanofood.

Ends/Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Issued at HKT 16:51