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Nanomaterials in Organic Food? The USDA Is Looking the Other Way




For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's All About Organics page, Safeguard Organic Standards page and our Nano Technology and Synthetic Biology page.

At their October 2010 meeting, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) unanimously approved a guidance document recommending that "Engineered Nanomaterials be prohibited from certified organic products as expeditiously as possible. We respectfully request that the National Organic Program take immediate actions to implement this guidance document."[1]

As of today, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) has taken no action to implement this recommendation. Engineered nanomaterials are being added to food, while consumers, who have put their trust in the safety of organic food, are being kept in the dark.

Nanomaterials are tiny particles measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Nanoparticles have at least one dimension of less than 100 nanometers (nm). As a comparison, a strand of DNA is about 2 nm across; a red blood cell is 7,000 to 10,000 nm across. Due to their small size, nanoparticles ingested in food may move throughout the body in unknown ways.

There are naturally occurring nanoparticles, such as smoke from wildfires, and incidentally produced nanoparticles, such as those created in the process of flour milling. Engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), in contrast, are not naturally occurring or incidental; they are intentionally manufactured.

Common ENMs include titanium dioxide, nanosilver, zinc oxide, aluminum, and carbon nanotubes. The properties of ENMs differ significantly from the properties of larger particles, even those of the same chemical composition.

Nanomaterials in familiar foods

Many people are unaware that engineered nanomaterials can be added to foods, fruit and vegetable coatings, food packaging materials, supplements, and cosmetics.[2] Titanium dioxide increases the whiteness of mints, milk, yogurt, and dairy substitutes. Nanomaterials are also used in chocolate, salad dressings, cereal, pasta, and other common foods.

Many food companies have invested heavily in nanotechnology, the science of creating and using nanomaterials. There are many applications for food use, but, according to a 2014 report by Friends of the Earth, "the extent to which nanomaterials are used along the food chain continues to be shrouded in mystery because of the lack of publicly accessible product registries or product labels."[3]

In 2005, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) established an inventory of consumer products that advertise having ENM content.[4] The inventory at one point contained more than 1,000 entries. However, funding for the inventory has run out, and PEN has not added to the database since August 2009. In fact, several items have recently been removed. Foods listed in May 2014, after they were mentioned in a Mother Jones article,[5] were later removed from the database. Because labeling is not required, manufacturers have removed references to nanomaterials from their product labels; as a result, it's no longer possible to verify that the products contain nanomaterials.