The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be looking to use emerging technology in products for livestock that could make animals on factory farms gain weight and absorb medications faster.
The technology in question is nanotechnology, the process of manipulating or creating matter at the molecular level. While there are a range of uses for nanotechnology, including the development of clothing and cosmetics, it has become particularly prevalent in the commercial food sector. Nestle, Heinz, Kraft, and other companies have cumulatively invested billions of dollars into the industry.
FDA told Reuters last week that it is "particularly interested" in using nanotechnology to change the chemical, physical, or biological makeup of livestock feed and drugs. The agency has a history of using dangerous or untested technology and additives, often keeping products on the market even after they have been proven as unsafe for human and animal consumption.
"We know far too little about the human health and environmental effects of this technology to allow it to slip into our food without rigorous assessment," said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for Center for Food Safety.
FDA released a series of guidances last week on the use of nanotechnology in food products, stating that the agency is not making "broad, general assumptions" about its safety. The documents "encourage" manufacturers to consult with the FDA on the safety of their products before rolling them out to the public, as the agency does not have enough data about potential safety issues of nanotechnology in food products for humans or animals.
The agency has come under fire several times in recent years from public health and consumer watchdog groups such as the Center for Food Safety and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for its irresponsible oversight of additives in food and medicine, particularly on factory farms. In addition to loosely regulated experimentation with nanotechnology, FDA was also found to use harmful additives like arsenic in order to make animals gain weight faster.
Last year, the Center for Food Safety filed a lawsuit against FDA to respond to a petition, filed by public health and environmental groups, asking the agency to withdraw additives containing arsenic from approved livestock feed.
Arsenic is often used in poultry feed to induce faster weight gain. The petition, filed in 2009, showed the harmful effects that organic arsenic compounds can have on animals and humans alike, as well as its tendency to convert into inorganic, cancer-causing toxins. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in 2006 called public attention to FDA's use of arsenic in livestock feed, but the agency made no significant changes to its policy since then.
FDA also knowingly allowed the widespread use of "high-risk" additives that didn't meet the agency's own safety standards, a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently showed. FDA reviewed 30 different antibiotic feeds used to promote growth and prevent disease in animals and poultry on factory farms, where conditions are often unsanitary, and concluded that the products exposed humans and animals to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Almost all of these additives are approved for use today and at least nine continue to be marketed.
Further complicating matters is the issue of transparency in food and drug approval regulations; a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted a range of concerns regarding nanotechnology that are shared by NGOs and consumers alike, including sufficient safety testing; public awareness of the presence of nanomaterials in food and products; and consideration of the ethics of nanotechnology. According to the report, "nearly all advocacy NGOs... expressed a desire for industry and governments to implement measures of some kind to protect the health and safety of workers and the public from the consequences of unregulated release of commercial nanoproducts into the environment."
FDA did not respond to request for comment.