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A nanotech revolution in agriculture and the food industry
ISB News Report
Phillip B C Jones
On March 20, 2006, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez announced the launch of a state-of-the-art center for collaborative nanotechnology research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "The National Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology," Gutierrez said in a press release, "will help the private sector develop innovative products like more efficient batteries, lighter-weight and higher performing materials for aircraft and autos, and smaller computer chips to power digital devices."
Nanotechnology encompasses the ability to measure, model, and control matter at dimensions of about 1 to 100 nanometers. The groundbreaking potential of nanotech derives from the unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties of nanoscale-sized matter that differ from those of individual molecules and bulk matter. These unique properties allow the development of novel applications, noted by Gutierrez, in the fields of engineering and computer science. Nanotechnology will also bring innovations to the food industry and agriculture.
Effecting Big Changes with Small Alterations in the Food Industry
The Helmut Kaiser Consultancy (Tubingen, Germany) finds nothing small about the nanofood market, predicting that the market may reach over $20 billion dollars by 2010. Around the globe, over 400 companies research, develop, and produce nanofood-related products. The general aims of nanotechnology in this arena center on improving the quality of food.
Numerous food companies seek to use nanotechnology to create safer, more nutritious, and more flavorful products. Nanotech may provide improved functional properties, such as low sodium food products that taste salty due to nanotech-induced interactions with the tongue, and functional food components tailored to the individual consumer's preferences. Nanoparticles, nanoemulsions, and nanocapsules may be designed to enhance the availability and dispersion of nutrients, antioxidants, or nutraceuticals. These beneficial factors may even be delivered to targeted areas of the body at selected times.
Research and development efforts in the nanofood industry also focus on improved food packaging. Nanotech can enable two new types of food containers: active packaging and smart packaging.
An example of active packaging is a plastic film with dispersed clay nanoparticles that prevent oxygen, carbon dioxide, and moisture from reaching food. Other types of active packaging possess antimicrobial properties.
Smart packaging incorporates nanomaterials that respond to environmental conditions, engage in self-repair, or alert a consumer to the presence of chemical or pathogen contamination. For example, nanoparticle films and other packaging with embedded sensors will detect food pathogens. These nanosensors trigger a package color change to alert consumers that the food has become contaminated or has begun to spoil. Another type of packaging may incorporate a bio-switch that releases a preservative if the food within begins to spoil.
A Nanotech Transformation in Agriculture
Nanotechnology may support "precision farming," the application of information technologies applied to the management of commercial agriculture. Precision farming's enabling technologies include satellite-positioning systems, geographic information systems, and remote sensing devices. By connecting global positioning systems with satellite imaging of fields, farm managers could remotely detect crop pests or evidence of drought. Information about these conditions would trigger an automatic adjustment of pesticide applications or irrigation levels. Dispersed throughout fields, a network of sensors would relay detailed data about crops and the soil. These sensors would need to have nanoscale sensitivity to monitor conditions, such as the presence of plant viruses or the level of soil nutrients.
Other forms of nanotechnology may directly alter agricultural practices. Nanoparticles or nanocapsules could provide a more efficient means to distribute pesticides and fertilizers, reducing the quantities of these chemicals introduced into the environment. Livestock may be identified and tracked through commerce using implanted nanochips. Nanoparticles may deliver growth hormone or vaccines to livestock, or DNA for genetic engineering of plants.
Ultimately, nanotech innovations may enable the agricultural industry to precisely control and improve production. An ability to manipulate molecules may permit the food industry to design food with enhanced function at lower costs. The capability to introduce revolutionary changes in agriculture and food carries risks. Is the federal government prepared to oversee these new developments?
Ahead of the Curve in the Regulation of Agrifood Nanotech
The University of Minnesota's Jennifer Kuzma has emphasized the lack of a comprehensive U.S. oversight policy for nanotechnology, despite the federal government's annual investment of about one billion dollars in nanotech research. Kuzma sees parallels between the regulation of biotechnology and nanotechnology in food and agricultural industries: both technologies have raised debates about whether the government should regulate the process or the product, both technologies offer diverse applications that touch multiple regulatory agencies, and both technologies can be characterized by overlapping or missing regulatory jurisdiction.
As a step toward analyzing regulation of agrifood nanotechnology, Kuzma and Peter VerHage have created a database of nanotechnology food and agriculture-related research funded by the U.S. government. They also examined publicly available information from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Kuzma and VerHage presented analyses of their data on March 30, 2006, at a program hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and via webcast. During the meeting, Kuzma suggested a bottom-up method for studying regulatory oversight of agrifood nanotech. The process would have three phases: (1) use the research and development database to assess applications of nanotechnology to food, agriculture, and agroecosystems; (2) select individual products to identify risks and benefits; and (3) after assessing particular products, extrapolate to analyze appropriate regulatory or non-regulatory governance systems for agrifood applications. Applying lessons from agbiotech, Kuzma suggested that independent research and safety studies should be performed and made available to the public, and that regulatory agencies should ensure a transparency in the product review and oversight process.
Most of the agrifood applications included in the database, Kuzma and VerHage predict, have a commercial timeframe of 5 to 15 years. David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, noted that those concerned about nanotech and food issues enjoy a unique position. "We are ahead of the curve," he said, "and have time to prepare."
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website provides copies of the database, which Kuzma and her colleagues will expand in the future (
Selected Sources
Bello M (2006) Commerce Secretary Gutierrez Announces New Nanotechnology Center. March 20, 2006. Available at:
Kuzma J (ed.) (2005) The Nanotechnology-Biology Interface: Exploring Models for Oversight. Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs (University of Minnesota). September 15, 2005. Available at:
Precision Agriculture - Nanotech Methods Used, Such as "Smart Dust," Smart Fields and Nanosensors. 2004. Available at:
Phill Jones

Benzene in drinks killing you softly
June 9, 2006
Sydney Morning Herald
Kirsty Needham
Benzene, a poison more often found in tobacco smoke and air pollution, has been discovered in half the soft drinks tested on the shop shelves.
In some cases, the benzene level was 40 times the level recommended for safe drinking water by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The national food regulator, Food Standards, said 10 per cent of flavoured beverages had benzene traces at "undesirable levels" that exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines.
Food Standards has asked the soft-drink industry to reformulate its products and take steps to lower benzene levels. The chief executive of the Australian Beverages Council, Tony Gentile, said the council had "advised manufacturers of how to minimise the incidence of benzene".

Bacteria have their own immune system protecting against outside DNA
June 8, 2006
University of Washington
Bacteria like Salmonella have a complicated immune system that helps them recognize and isolate foreign DNA trying to invade their cell membrane, according to a University of Washington-led study in the June 8 issue of Science Express.
The research, which also included scientists at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center in San Diego, could have major implications for understanding the evolution of disease-causing bacteria. The findings may also impact the biotech industry, where bacteria are used to produce recombinant human proteins for medical treatments and research.
A group of researchers led by Dr. Ferric Fang, professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the UW School of Medicine, were interested in learning how bacteria respond to genetic information coming from outside sources. Just as immune cells recognize and attack foreign invaders in the human body to protect against harmful infections, single-cell organisms have a protein called H-NS that recognizes foreign DNA and prevents it from becoming active, the researchers discovered.
But bacteria can also benefit from foreign DNA. When Salmonella is infecting an animal or person, for instance, many proteins the bacteria need to cause disease are encoded by DNA acquired from other bacteria. The researchers found that when the bacteria is infecting a host, other molecules can compete with the H-NS protein, allowing the disease-causing genes to be expressed. When the bacteria are in the environment, H-NS turns these genes off to avoid detrimental consequences if all the disease-causing genes were to be expressed at once.
These findings give scientists new insight into how bacteria can protect themselves from an invasion by foreign DNA, yet still take in genetic information from diverse sources that makes them more virulent.
"By harnessing foreign DNA, bacteria that cause typhoid, dysentery, cholera and plague have evolved from harmless organisms into feared pathogens," explained Dr. William Navarre, a senior fellow at the UW and primary author of the study. "This research gives us an explanation of how pathogenic bacteria have evolved over millions of years."
The researchers also learned that the H-NS protein is able to recognize foreign DNA on the basis of its increased content of adenine and thymine, the building blocks of DNA.
"It has been a great mystery why disease-causing genes of bacteria usually contain more adenine and thymine," said Michael McClelland, professor and director of the Molecular Biology Program at the Kimmel Cancer Center. "Now we know this is because such sequences are easier to recruit and regulate than other DNA."
This research could also have major implications for the biotech industry, which uses bacteria for the production of recombinant proteins for medicine and research. These proteins, such as insulin or human growth hormone, are created when a piece of human DNA corresponding to that protein is introduced into bacteria. The bacteria then reproduce many times over, creating more of the protein each time they reproduce. The proteins are purified out from the bacteria, leaving behind only the useful protein. However, in that process, the yield of some human proteins produced in bacteria can be low. The new research indicates that the H-NS "immune system" may be responsible for interfering with the expression of human genes in bacteria.
"Having a better understanding of this system could help the biotech industry make recombinant proteins more efficiently," said Fang. "More foreign protein can be produced in bacteria that don't have the H-NS molecule."

Food Allergies Becoming More Common In Children
Children's Memorial Seeks Kids With Allergies For Study

Mary Ann Childers

Source of Article:

(CBS) CHICAGO Food allergies among children have been increasing since the late 1990s, but funding for research into prevention and treatment hasn¡¯t. CBS 2 Medical Editor Mary Ann Childers reports on how a group of concerned parents and doctors is hoping to change that.
Ice cream can cool you off on a hot day, but for some kids one lick could be life threatening.¡°Milk to a milk-allergic child is like cyanide is to you and I,¡± said David Bunning of the Food Allergy Project.
Bunning created the Food Allergy Project after learning his two sons, Daniel and Bryan, have allergies. Bunning has donated $15 million for research. Now he, along with other parents and doctors, is urging the government to increase funding from $8 million to $50 million dollars a year.
Up to 8 percent of American children suffer from allergies to foods such as peanuts, milk, eggs, wheat, shellfish and more.
"It might have been one in 20, but now more than half of the kids I take care of have food allergies," said Dr. Jacqueline Pongracic, head of allergy at Children¡¯s Memorial Hospital.
Researchers at Children¡¯s are studying whether genes, the environment or both might be to blame. For now, kids with allergies must always be prepared. They must know how to use an epipen for severe allergic reactions and do without foods other kids can eat easily.
¡°Doughnuts I can't eat and I really want to eat those," said 12-year old Andrew Thompson.
And 9-year-old Daniel Bunning has to pass on the pizza his friends enjoy.
¡°They keep trying to get me to do it but I just can't,¡± said Daniel. ¡°It's not worth risking my life."
The Children's Memorial Hospital study hopes to enroll 900 families. Some preliminary results are expected in a year or two.

U.S. Mad Cow Cases Are Mysterious Strain

Two cases of mad cow disease in Texas and Alabama seem to have resulted from a mysterious strain that could appear spontaneously in cattle, researchers say.
Government officials are trying to play down differences between the two U.S. cases and the mad cow epidemic that has led to the slaughter of thousands of cattle in Britain since the 1980s.
It is precisely these differences that are complicating efforts to understand the brain-wasting disorder, known medically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE for short.
''It's most important right now, till the science tells us otherwise, that we treat this as BSE regardless,'' the Agriculture Department's chief veterinarian, John Clifford, said in an interview.
The Texas and Alabama cases -- confirmed last year and this one, respectively -- are drawing international attention.
At a meeting in London last month, experts presented research on the U.S. cases and on similar ones in Europe.
These cows appear to have had an ''atypical'' strain that scientists are only now starting to identify. Such cases have been described in about a dozen cows in France, Italy and other European countries, as well as in Japan.
In the two U.S. cases, researchers did not detect the telltale spongy lesions caused by prions, the misfolded proteins that deposit plaque on the brain and kill brain cells. In addition, the prions in brain tissue samples from the Texas and Alabama cows seemed to be distributed differently from what would be expected to be found in cows with the classic form.
Laboratory studies on mice in France showed that both the classic and atypical strains could be spread from one animal to another. But scientists theorize the atypical strain might have infected cattle through an unusual way.
Mad cow disease is not transmitted from cow to cow like a cold or the flu. It is believed to spread through feed, when cows eat the contaminated tissue of other cattle. That happens when crushed cattle remains are added to feed as a protein source. This once-common practice ended in the United States in 1997.
Humans can get a related disease, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, in similar fashion -- by eating meat contaminated with mad cow. Mad cow in humans afflicts younger people; the average age at death is 28 years. A more common form of CJD -- not linked to mad cow -- can happen spontaneously and is reported in nearly 300 people in the U.S. each year. This form occurs mostly in older people; the average age at death is 68. Some scientists are raising the possibility that the atypical strain also might happen spontaneously in cattle. The Texas and Alabama cows were older animals, as were some of the other animals in Europe with seemingly atypical cases.
Linda Detwiler, a former Agriculture Department veterinarian who consults for major food
Top Of Document companies, cautioned against making that assumption. ''I think it's kind of early to say that would be the case,'' Detwiler said.
Other theories, she said, suggest the atypical strain might come from a mutation of mad cow disease or even from a related disease in sheep.Mad cow disease has turned up three times in the United States: in native-born animals in Texas and Alabama and in a Canadian import in Washington state.

In the Texas and Alabama cows, tests found patterns distinct from what turned up in an infected cow in Washington state and a cluster of Canadian cases, researchers say. The Washington and Canadian cases resemble the classic British cases.
No matter what the origins might be of an atypical strain, the government says there is no reason to change federal testing or measures that safeguard animals and people from the disease.
''We still feel confident in the safeguards that we have,'' Clifford said. ''We have to base our assumptions on what is scientifically known and understood.''
Meanwhile, mad cow research has been halted at the Agriculture Department's lab in Ames, Iowa, because of employee allegations that the lab improperly was disposing of animal waste.
The department asked a group of international experts to review the lab's disposal practices. The city of Ames also is investigating. 6-11-06

Food vendors' carts get little scrutiny
June 11, 2006
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Knight Ridder Tribune
John Sullivan
Philadelphia may, according to this story, have the most lax restaurant inspection rate among the nation's largest cities, but its inspection of food carts is even worse, because the city rarely examines the 1,465 or so food trucks once they are on the street.
The city asks each owner, when licensed, to drive his cart to the Health Department for inspection. Inspectors make sure the carts are clean and capable of keeping food at the proper temperatures.
But, the story says, the carts are never examined again unless inspectors find a problem at the outset or someone complains.
Terrance Powell, director of special operations and planning for Los Angeles County's inspection unit, was quoted as saying, "If you're not inspecting a cart when it's operating, you're not doing anything."
The story adds that when Philadelphia inspectors have taken a closer look, they have found inadequate hand washing and coolers that didn't work, two major causes of food-borne illness.
Food-safety experts criticized Philadelphia's policy as unsafe, noting that other major cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Pittsburgh, perform unannounced street inspections of food carts.
John Rafes, director of Environmental Health Services for Philadelphia, was cited as saying that carts were less likely to have pest infestations, so they didn't need street inspections, and that the owners buy food each day from licensed commissaries or kitchens, w hich are inspected.
As proof that carts are safe, Rafes said only a dozen people complained in 2005., adding, "Over the years, we have not seen an overwhelming reason to increase the frequency of inspections."
Powell was cited as saying that waiting for a complaint to inspect a cart is a mistake because few complain while many get sick, adding, "We estimate 150,000 people get sick from food each year, and we only receive about 1,800 complaints. It's very underreported."
He said Los Angeles has 30 inspectors who check each of the county's 10,000 food carts at least twice a year, even though all food must be precooked, a less risky operation than found in Philadelphia.
Don Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, was quoted as saying, "If I was designing an inspection program, I would want to see it in operation on the street. There are problems that might arise on the street that you would not see in a n inspection, like keeping food hot on a cold winter's day and keeping food cold on a hot summer's day."
In Seattle, food carts are required to submit their routes so inspectors can conduct two spot checks per year.
An Allegheny County food-safety official, Steve Steingart, was cited as saying he can empathize with Philadelphia's staff shortage, but the system didn't work, adding, "To have them just come in, what kind of sense does that make?"

Hard-to-identify E coli strain found in UK outbreak

Source of Article:

Jun 8, 2006 (CIDRAP News) ? An unusual strain of Escherichia coli O157 that standard laboratory culture methods cannot detect has been identified in a disease outbreak associated with a nursery in Scotland and in other cases in Scotland and England, according to recent news reports.

The outbreak strain grows on sorbitol-containing agar (SMAC) and does not grow on the selective media (CT-SMAC) usually used for Shiga toxin?producing E coli (STEC) O157. Thus, illness cases caused by this strain, called a sorbitol-fermenting strain, could be missed in laboratories unless other testing methods are used.

The disease outbreak began at a nursery in Dunfermline, Scotland, on May 9, and had involved 13 cases of gastrointestinal illness in children and adults by late May, according to BBC News reports. Four children were hospitalized for treatment for hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), physicians at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow told BBC News.

Health Protection Scotland stated that the sorbitol-fermenting strain has been rare in the United Kingdom, the BBC reported. The strain had first been identified in Germany in 1988 and was thought to be restricted to continental Europe until 2002, when it was identified in Australia and the UK. more information

Sizzler's cleared of food poisoning
June 08, 2006
Source of Article:
INITIAL tests by Queensland Health have cleared food at a Sizzler restaurant as the cause of seven cases of suspected food poisoning last Sunday. Those who fell ill had earlier eaten at the restaurant chain's Brookside outlet, in Brisbane's west. Queensland Health was notified on Monday and took away 43 samples of food and environmental swabs from the restaurant.
"Initial testing has failed to find any evidence of foodborne pathogens and tests are being finalised to determine the causes of the illness," a Queensland Health spokeswoman said.
Earlier this year the restaurant chain beefed up security after having to shut down its salad bars nationwide when rat poison was found in food at two Brisbane outlets.
A 57-year-old woman was charged with two counts of contaminating goods with intent and three counts of acts intended to cause grievous bodily harm.

Food-contact surface sanitizing solutions; Proposed revocation of tolerance exemptions for sanitizers with no food-contact uses in registered pesticide products and with insufficient data for reassessment
June 9, 2006
[Federal Register: (Volume 71, Number 111)]
[Page 33416-33419]
40 CFR Part 180
[EPA-HQ-OPP-2006-0495; FRL-8072-8]
AGENCY: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
ACTION: Proposed rule.
SUMMARY: This document proposes under section 408(e)(1) of the Federal
Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) to revoke the existing exemption
from the requirement of a tolerance for the food-contact surface
sanitizing solution use of certain antimicrobial pesticides because the
Agency has determined that the tolerance exemption corresponds to the
food-contact sanitizing use for which there are no longer registered
pesticide products, and because there are insufficient data to make the
determination of safety required by FFDCA section 408(b)(2). The
regulatory actions proposed in this document will contribute toward the
Agency's tolerance reassessment requirements under the FFDCA section
408(q), as amended by the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996.
By law, EPA is required by August 2006 to reassess the tolerances that
were in existence on August 2, 1996.
DATES: Comments must be received on or before July 10, 2006.
ADDRESSES: Submit your comments, identified by docket identification
(ID) number EPA-HQ-OPP-2006-0495, by one of the following methods:
Federal eRulemaking Portal:
Follow the on-line instructions for submitting comments.
Mail: Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP) Regulatory Public
Docket (7502P), Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania
Ave., NW., Washington, DC 20460-0001.
Delivery: OPP Regulatory Public Docket (7502P),
Environmental Protection Agency, Rm. S-4400, One Potomac Yard (South
Building), 2777 S. Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA. Deliveries are only
accepted during the Docket's normal hours of operation (8:30 a.m. to 4
p.m., Monday through Friday, excluding legal holidays). Special
arrangements should be made for deliveries of boxed information. The
Docket telephone number is (703) 305-5805.
Instructions: Direct your comments to docket ID number EPA-HQ-OPP-
2006-0495. EPA's policy is that all comments received will be included
in the docket without change and may be made available on-line at, including any personal information
provided, unless the comment includes information claimed to be
Confidential Business Information (CBI) or other information whose
disclosure is restricted by statute. Do not submit information that you
consider to be CBI or otherwise protected through or e-
mail. The Federal website is an ``anonymous access''
system, which means EPA will not know your identity or contact
information unless you provide it in the body of your comment. If you
send an e-mail comment directly to EPA without going through, your e-mail address will be automatically captured and
included as part of the comment that is placed in the docket and made
available on the Internet. If you submit an electronic comment, EPA
recommends that you include your name and other contact information in
the body of your comment and with any disk or CD-ROM you submit. If EPA
cannot read your comment due to technical difficulties and cannot contact you for clarification, EPA may not be able to consider your comment. Electronic files should avoid the use of special characters, any form of encryption, and be free of any defects or viruses.
Docket: All documents in the docket are listed in the docket index.
Although listed in the index, some information is not publicly
available, e.g., CBI or other information whose disclosure is
restricted by statute. Certain other material, such as copyrighted
material, is not placed on the Internet and will be publicly available
only in hard copy form. Publicly available docket materials are
available either in the electronic docket at
, or, if only available in hard copy, at the OPP
Regulatory Public Docket in Rm. S-4400, One Potomac Yard (South
Building), 2777 S. Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA. The hours of operation
of this Docket Facility are from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through
Friday, excluding legal holidays. The Docket telephone number is (703)
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Laura Bailey, Antimicrobials Division (7510P), Office of Pesticide Programs, Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave, NW., Washington, DC 20460-0001; telephone
number: (703) 308-6212; e-mail address:

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