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Soil Association to ban nanotechnology

The United Kingdom's largest organic certifier announced earlier this month that it will prohibit manufactured nanoparticles in the organic food, personal care products and textiles it certifies.

In making its announcement, the Soil Association said nanotechnology "poses a serious new threat to human health" and noted the British government's failure to regulate nanotech products.

The ban affects only production of organic goods certified in the U.K. and applies to the use of human-made nanomaterials whose basic particle size is less than 125 nanometers.

"We're finally seeing the beginning of some long-overdue protection for consumers against potentially dangerous nanoparticles, "said Ian Illuminato of Washington, D.C.-based Friends of the Earth U.S. "It's time for U.S. certifiers, companies and regulators to get with the program and protect Americans, too."

Susan D. Brienza, a lawyer with the Denver office of Washington, D.C.-based law firm Patton Boggs, LLP, said the U.K. was "the first country to get very concerned about nanotechnology used in consumer products. (The ban) doesn't surprise me."

She called the action analogous to the ban on genetically mordified organisms in organic food in the U.S.

Nanotechnology (defined as the control of matter one-billionth of a meter in size, which often has different chemical or physical properties than larger particles) was incorporated into more than $50 billion in manufactured goods in 2007, according to New York-based Lux Research. The market is expected to grow to $2.6 trillion by 2011. Nanotechnology is expected to be incorporated into $20 billion worth of consumer food products by 2010.

Nanotechnology is used in foods, dietary supplements, cosmetics, drugs and medical devices. Manufacturers argue it can be used to extend shelf life in packaging and improve frying oil preservatives and the nutritional content and effect — including color and taste — of foods and supplements. It's used in sunscreen to make sun-blocking ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rub on clear instead of white.

But the industry remains largely unregulated, and some critics contend that because of their size, nanoparticles can enter organs and tissues and that they can pose unknown health and environmental risks. They argue nano-materials should be restricted, particularly in food, supplements and cosmetics, until comprehensive safety testing and other studies have been conducted.

Brienza doesn't see that happening any time soon. "I don't predict the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] or the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] will institute a ban on nanotech foods, certainly not in the near future."

The USDA issued its Nanotech Task Force Report last July after meetings in October 2006. The agency concluded that it would not issue regulations "because it still considers nanotechnology to be a technology, a process. And the FDA does not govern technologies or processes — only finished products, and also because the agency concluded that more research is needed," Brienza said.

Still, although the FDA has come "rather late" to the issue, Brienza says it's ready to "pay more attention to nanotech products, risk/benefit analysis and considering future regulation."

So apparently are other experts and officials. The Food and Drug Law Institute, for example, plans to hold its first Conference on Nanotechnology, Law, Regulation and Policy in Washington, D.C., in February.

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