Nanotechnology’s potential for food safety is perking up the interest of scientists, judging from presentations and conversations at the annual conference of the Institute of Food Technologists, held earlier this month in Anaheim, Calif. The technology, which focuses on materials between one and 100 nanometers in length (a human hair is about 6,000 nanometers wide), has been explored for uses in everything from antibacterials to packaging.

Dr. Bernadene Magnuson is senior scientific and regulatory consultant in food toxicology with Cantox Health Sciences International in Ontario, Canada. interviewed Dr. Magnuson via e-mail about her thoughts on using nanotechnology to improve food safety and food production. Does nanotechnology have the potential to revolutionize food safety?

Dr. Bernadene Magnuson: I think the development of highly sensitive, rapid detection methods that easily can be used and understood by anyone (such as a cloth changing color if the surface you just wiped is not clean) could have an enormous impact on food safety at the level of the food processing industry, food retail and food service. Packaging that warns consumers if the food product contains food pathogens, and/or destroys pathogens also could be of great significance to food safety. In what ways is nanotechnology currently being used to improve food safety, especially in the meat and poultry industries?

This is actually a difficult question to answer briefly. To my knowledge there are no current applications of nanotechnology that are specific for food safety issues. The use of nanotechnology in electronics, semiconductors and scientific equipment has been around for many years, so there are likely many indirect uses. For example, nanofluidic technology is used in laboratory instruments that can measure DNA characteristics with very small samples of DNA. These are likely used in food safety research studies. Nanofilters also could be used in filtration systems for water purification, for example, which may indirectly be used in meat and poultry industries. What kinds of new applications for food safety do you see on the horizon?

There are many research laboratories working on development of nanosensors for food pathogens and food-related toxins such as aflatoxin. The promise of these sensors is improved detection sensitivity and rapid detection times; however, I do not know if any have been commercialized. For example, I did see a research article on use of nanotechnology to produce magnetic beads that could capture E.coli and facilitate removal from ground beef samples, but have not seen whether would work at a large scale.

Use of nanotechnology to incorporate antimicrobials into food packaging is also a potential new application. There was one company [at the IFT conference and trade show] that was advertising antimicrobial containers for storing food at home in the refrigerator, but I don’t know if there are any such products used at the food industry levels. I believe FDA has approved some new food packaging materials in which nanomaterials are used as part of plastic matrices for improved strength and shelf-life properties, but this would not apply to meat and poultry.

One interesting product that is being developed at Cornell, I believe, is fabric that uses nanotechnology to incorporate sensors for pathogens, and provide rapid indicators of the detection of pathogens. They were looking at developing for hospital applications, to confirm effective cleaning of hospital rooms and prevent spread of disease. Obviously, this approach could be used to confirm effective sanitation practices in the food industry as well. The researchers may be working on this already.

Use of reactive inks in food packaging that would change color to indicate temperature abuse (i.e. if temp of refrigerated products exceeded certain level) have been introduced in the European markets. Is nanotechnology cost-prohibitive for all but the largest processors, or is it an affordable technology for most companies in the food business?

I think the answer is "it depends." For example, use of nanomaterials as part of packaging can be very inexpensive and perhaps even provide a cost savings. I think the hurdles that are making some applications cost-prohibitive are the development costs including safety evaluation. For example, use of nanosilver as an antimicrobial is not very expensive, but there are currently questions on environmental impact that require investment in research before commercialization is likely. Are there safety concerns about nanotechnology itself that meat and poultry processors need to be aware of? What can processors do to make sure their employees and operations are safe?

Please understand that nanomaterials are already all around us. The most extensive work on the toxicity of nanomaterials is in the area of inhalation toxicology as air pollution, welding, various industrial processing all produce air-borne nanomaterials. And all nanomaterials are not toxic. For example, milk has nanomaterials in the form of casein micelles. Most food products are themselves, some type of nanomaterial. For example, meat is composed of muscle, which is a complex nanostructured material. DNA, which is part of every living cell, is a nanomaterial. So there are: safe natural nanomaterials all around us, there are not safe natural nanomaterials such as viruses all around us, and there are safe novel man-made nanomaterials being used and we also have the capability to produce not safe nanomaterials. So it is impossible to clump all the thousands of different nanomaterials into one entity and discuss safety.

The applications of nanotechnology that I see most likely of use in meat and poultry industries would be those in which employees would have low, if any, exposure. Where there is concern, is in the operations where free nanoparticles are used as a component of the products (as in the actual production of nanocomposite plastics or incorporation of nanoparticles into paints, etc). Here, the concern is with inhalation exposure. There is a great deal of research on this by the chemical industry.