Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Nanotechnology: Its Impact on Food Safety

Academic journal article Journal of Environmental Health

Nanotechnology: Its Impact on Food Safety

Article excerpt

Nanotechnology--what is it?

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, "Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale" (National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2006).

In layman's terms, nanotechnology is the science behind the intentional creation, manipulation, and characterization of extremely small particles and macro molecules.

The chemical, physical, and biological properties of materials differ in fundamental and valuable ways from those of individual atoms, molecules, or bulk matter. Research and development activities in nanotechnology are directed toward understanding and creating improved materials, devices, and systems that exploit these new properties.

To get an idea of the size of particles that nanotechnology encompasses, consider some comparisons. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter. A typical sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick, a red blood cell is about 2,000 to 5,000 nm in size, and the diameter of DNA is in the range of 2.5 nm. The size range of highest interest in the field of nanotechnology is from 1 nm to 100 nm, so nanotechnology deals with matter that ranges from one-half the diameter of DNA up to 1/20 the size of a red blood cell. This size range is comparable to that of viruses and is one-fourth the wavelength of visible light.

Not only are new companies immersing themselves in the development of nanoproducts, but well-established companies such as General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, and DuPont are also jumping on the nanotechnology bandwagon.

Nanotechnology is being used in a wide variety of industries and products, from electronics to cosmetics, from self-cleaning glass to army uniforms that monitor the health of the wearer to camouflage that changes to match its surroundings. And yes, advances in nanotechnology are affecting even food products and food safety.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), by 2015 the global impact of products in which nanotechnology plays a key role will be approximately $1 trillion annually (USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, 2006).

How is nanotechnology used, or how can it be used, in food safety applications?

A recent study by the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics ranked 10 nanotechnology applications that are currently in development and have the greatest potential to aid the poor. Agricultural-productivity enhancement ranked second in this study (Salarnanca-Buentello, Persad, Court, Martin, Daar, & Singer, 2005). It would seem then that the possibility of using nanotechnology to maximize agricultural productivity is huge.

As of March 8, 2006, 212 products or product lines were using nanotechnology, of which 19 were food and beverage products (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2006a).

The food industry is under intense pressure to ensure food safety and at the same time to achieve increased profit margins, and is beginning to see the possibilities that nanotechnology offers along the supply chain, from farm to table. The current drive towards optimum productivity is likely to continue to boost nanotechnology funding. A recent study from Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which looked into nanotechnology in the food industry, estimated that the nano-food market will surge from $2.6 billion (as of 2005) to $20.4 billion in 2010 (Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, 2005).

Potential applications include agricultural production (plant and animal), food processing, and manufacturing in areas such as pathogen detection, food engineering, packaging, and equipment.

To illustrate the breadth of potential nanotechnology applications, let's look at a few examples:

Pathogen Detection

Outbreaks of disease have resulted in export bans and the collapsing of markets. …

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