Nanofood companies reduce risk by staying mute

In a recent opinion piece over at Nanowerk, itâ''s argued that the food industry has pulled so far back from discussing their use of nanotechnology that they are allowing anti-nanotech activists to frame the debate over the safety of nanotechnology in food.

The subtitle of the piece â''how the industry is blowing itâ'' manages to frame the issue in such a way that it seems there is something to lose by food companies not discussing the specifics of their material science labs beyond what they report to the Food and Drug Administration to demonstrate the safety of a new food additive.

There may well be, but the food companies could lose out equally by actually engaging in the debate.

The fallacy in the argument of the editorial seems to me the idea that â''safety-consciousâ'' and â''mature, grown-upsâ'' want to hear both sides of the argument and then come to an informed opinion. Itâ''s hard to believe that argument about any subject, but especially so regarding food, which is such a personal matter regarding what we decide to put into our bodies.

The editorialâ''s premise leads to a machine-gun series of questions:

â'¢ Why not come out guns blazing and educate the public about the exciting opportunities for nanotechnologies in the food sector?

â'¢ Why not demonstrate that the risk aspects of the technology are being thoroughly investigated?

â'¢ Why invite the cliché of 'bad corporate citizens' â'' companies that keep information from the public and hide the risky aspects of what they are doing?

The answer seems to me that the publicâ''s opinion is rarely, if ever, determined by reasoned consideration of all the data. It depends more on personal biases and appearances rather than facts.

I imagine that the food companies have the position that to engage in a debate will indicate that there is some controversy to argue over. To ignore the issue will result in the public ignoring it as well.

Currently there is no shortage of second-guessing on what the public wants or how it will react to nanotechnology and there is even NSF-funded research to codify personal biases when it comes to nanotechnology.

Itâ''s a difficult game to play anticipating the vagaries of the consuming public, and I imagine the food companies want to avoid what my mother would have described as being â''too smart by half.â''

By thinking that you can reason your way into people understanding the science and then making a rational decision, you just opened the door to people drawing their own conclusions based on their own flimsy-based notions. All they needed in order to draw these misguided judgments was news that there was some controversy out there that big bad companies were trying cover up with science.

There will always be people who happily eat Twinkies without a second thought of whatâ''s in them or how theyâ''re made, and there will always be those who will keep a strict organic vegan diet and the twain shall never meet.

For those Twinkie eaters out there, who spend less time agonizing over the ingredients in their food than their vegan brethren, there is the anticipation that the Food and Drug Administration is keeping an eye on the ingredients for them. Until the FDA report otherwise, food companies will likely continue using nanotechnology without engaging in a potentially lose-lose debate over its safety.

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