Last Friday the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidance documents on the use of nanotechnology by food and cosmetics industries. Since then the reports covering this story have characterized it as “FDA opts for stricter role on nanotechnology” or “FDA proposes new rules for nanotechnology.”
While "draft guidance documents" may not garner as much interest as these more confrontational headlines, the guidelines come closer to the FDA's invitation to industry on how together they can look at the issue of nanomaterials in food and cosmetics. And from someone who has been accused of being too dismissive of government attempts at regulation of nanotech, I believe this to be a sensible way to approach the issue.
A misconception that has circulated in a number of the stories covering this news is that the guidelines are limited to food packaging. This is not true. The guidelines cover food ingredients and additives in addition to packaging as the blog Frogheart rightly points out.
But getting back to why I believe this collaborative approach makes sense: Both the food and cosmetics industries could quite easily retreat into silence about their use of nanotechnology in their products if a more hard-line approach was taken. This reticence has made sense to me considering the hyped up rhetoric that seemed to preclude the possibility for a reasoned, balanced and scientific discussion of nanotechnology in food as well as cosmetics.
The UK government provided a glaring example of how not to approach the issue two years ago when the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee issued their findings on nanotechnology. They determined that there were “gaps in knowledge” on the use of nanotechnology in food and blamed it on a food industry that was too secretive about its use. What they neglected to consider was maybe the food industry in fact wasn’t using nanotechnology in its products. But the truth was that nobody knew the extent of nanotechnology’s use in the food industry and the committee certainly hadn’t established an atmosphere to encourage a greater sharing of knowledge.
The FDA seems to be taking a very different tack with these guidelines. There are no accusations, but instead there’s encouragement. In the draft guidance document for the cosmetic industry, you get this kind of language:
“If you wish to use a nanomaterial in a cosmetic product, either a new material or an altered version of an already marketed ingredient, FDA encourages you to meet with us to discuss the test methods and data needed to substantiate the product’s safety, including chronic toxicity and other long-term toxicity data as appropriate.”
I am sure there will be those who will look at these documents and find them to be industry coddling. But what is the real alternative to this kind of collaborative approach? Labeling? I am not clear on whether labeling solves any issues or just creates new ones. Does the use of a “nano” prefix or suffix to chemicals that are already used in cosmetics like Hydroxyethyl cellulose dimethyl diallylammonium chloride copolymer really inform the public? Or more importantly do they establish the safety of these products for the consumer?
I want to know that my food and cosmetic products are safe and telling me some long list of chemicals doesn’t provide me with that knowledge. But knowing that the FDA is working closely with industry in developing tests to ensure that products are safe comes much closer to providing me that assurance.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.