Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
An environmental group has called for a ban on new nano-materials being used in foods and its packaging until risk assessments have proven the tiny materials are safe to consume.
A report released by Friends of the Earth on Thursday said the number of products in Australia containing nano-sized materials was growing rapidly, despite scientific evidence suggesting these materials could accumulate in the body and cause damage.
"In order to protect the health of the public you [need to] treat new technologies with a level of precaution until you've established they're safe," said Jeremy Tager, an author of the report.
He said nano-materials were used in food additives, supplements, food packaging, vitamins for livestock and pesticides.
Nano-materials are produced or engineered on an extremely small scale, typically less than 100 nanometres. The size and shape of nano-particles gives them unique properties and behaviours, which manufacturers exploit to improve their products, but which opponents say can make them unsafe.
Mr Tager said little work had been done to assess their potential long-term environmental and health impacts.
He said while evidence of harm was mainly limited to cell and animal studies, nano forms of titanium dioxide (a food whitener) and silica (found in powdered foods) were a concern.
Research has found titanium dioxide could damage DNA, the immune system and cells. Other studies have shown nano-silica could cross the placenta barrier, he said.
"That is a basis for putting a halt on those materials."
Friends of the Earth also wants a register for products containing nano-materials and compulsory labels for nano-foods.
Although the national food regulator, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, requires producers of new foods, manufactured with nanotechnologies that present safety concerns, to undergo safety assessment before they can be sold, the definition of "new" is murky.
A Monash University law academic, Karinne Ludlow, said if a manufacturer used a traditional ingredient in its nano form, it may not be considered new and therefore may not require testing.
The food standards website said it had not received any applications to approve new nano-scale particles in food.
"Our view is that any nano-scale material is novel," Mr Tager said.
But Dr Ludlow said it was impossible for any regulator to test every new product against every new science.
"There's no real evidence that nano-food causes harm," Dr Ludlow said.
A toxicologist and head of NanoSafe Australia, Paul Wright, said many of the studies that suggested nano-materials were toxic to animals or cells were exposed to much higher doses than would ever be found in foods.
A Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokeswoman said food manufacturers and suppliers were legally obliged to ensure any food entering the market was safe.
Foods that did not comply would be investigated by state agencies, she said.