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Hundreds of firms using nanotech in food
2004 07 18

By Independent UK

Two hundred companies are already working on inserting nanotechnology into food, posing "immense" risks to health, new research claims.

The study estimates that use of the technology in food has created an industry, now worth more than 1bn, which will grow within six years to more than 10bn, with thousands of firms involved.

Last week, Prince Charles, writing exclusively in The Independent on Sunday, warned that the technology, which uses microscopic particles, a million of which would fit on a pin head, could lead to "upsets" similar to the Thalidomide disaster, unless care were taken. Leading scientists and the Royal Society condemned him for the analogy, but today he is backed by a leading expert on the technology, Professor Gregor Wolbring, himself affected by the drug Thalidomide.

Nanotechnology, which is set to revolutionise industry and everyday life, deals with particles so small the laws of physics no longer apply. The technology could bring great benefits, such as medicines precisely geared to curing particular organs. But it also poses great dangers since some of the particles affect the immune system. There are no special regulations on their use and little research has been done on their safe application.

The report, by Helmut Kaiser, a German consultancy, concludes that, with nanotechnology, industry is set to design food "with much more ... precision, and lower costs and sustainability". It adds: "The change is dramatic, the potentials are immense, and the risks too." The technology is already used to preserve foods, and boost flavour and nutritional values.

Meanwhile, a report for the US Department of Agriculture, describing some of these applications, says that nanotechnology "has the potential to revolutionise agriculture and food systems".

Prince Charles's warning sparked worldwide controversy. Professor Steve Jones, of University College London, called him "a classic woolly thinker", and Lord Winston, the fertility expert, said he had raised "spectres'' and "science scares". Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology at Cambridge University, said the reference to Thalidomide was "inappropriate and irrelevant".

The Royal Society criticised the prince's comparison, since nanotechnology was "not a new drug".

But Professor Wolbring, of the University of Calgary, Canada, who was born without legs after his mother took Thalidomide in pregnancy, called such criticism "stupidity". He added: "The prince's use of the ... analogy, to draw our attention to the often unanticipated consequences of [well intended] science, is timely."

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