Q: What is nanotechnology?
A: A bulletin from the European Food Information Council has called it the science of the small, because it deals with processes and products in which the materials may be no more than 100 nanometres in diameter. One nanometre is just one-millionth of a millimetre a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide.
Q: Why is it of interest?
A: Scale can make a big difference to the properties of a material. Some of the smallest particles are even able to cross cell barriers. The pioneers are convinced that these changed properties will give the nano-products a major role in food as well as in medicine and in industrial procedures.
Q: What type of applications might occur in the food chain?
A: The example most often quoted in connection with foods is that nanotechnology may offer packaging that protects the food better as well as being lighter and more flexible. There are also nanoparticles with antimicrobial abilities and that can stop dust sticking to surfaces.
Q: Is this technology in use already?
A: Only to a small extent in foods. There is still some consultation among regulators who want to be sure that human health is safeguarded, although no health risk has been identified. But principles of nanotechnology have been applied to the control of mycotoxins in feed ingredients and also in some novel systems for delivering drugs to a target site in the body. At least one vitamin-mineral premix has been claimed to use nanotechnology to achieve a better blend.
Q: Could there be practical applications on pig units?
A: Among the health management ideas being tested at present is to give a nanocoating to the surface of objects such as feeders and drinkers in houses for animals and poultry, with the aim of reducing the transfer of pathogens within pens. Another possibility under investigation is to apply a non-stick coat to the case and blades of a fan so that dust cannot build up and cause a loss of efficiency. One early assessment reckoned that 5-10% savings in energy use for power ventilation were possible in this way.
Q: Would it be expensive?
A: When nanotechnology first hit the headlines at the end of the 1990s, it looked extremely costly. However, this was simply because so few processes were being produced at that time. Today, its advocates claim that a nanocoating does not need to cost much more than a regular paint, although this has yet to be demonstrated in practice.
Q: Will it become widespread?
A: A prediction made to an international conference in 2006 was that nanotechnology could be incorporated into almost 16.5 billion worth of food products by 2010. This seems overstated but the big companies in foods are well aware of the potential health advantages that some nano-products could provide to consumers. In the words of one conference speaker, products developed through the use of nanotechnology can improve the quality of life of consumers through improved health, better sensory enjoyment and a reduced risk of acquiring a microbial infection or an allergic response through the consumption of the food. We are told to expect such products emerging as functional foods as well as in food-contact materials. Moreover, the experts seem convinced that nanotechnology will become applied throughout the food chain, from primary production on farms to the work done at the processing plant.