A discovery thousands of times smaller than a human hair could completely redefine how restaurants serve their food. But it might also usher in one of the biggest controversies in food safety the industry has seen in years.
An engineering team at Texas A&M University developed a revolutionary thin-coating polymer with the food-preservation qualities of glass. Jaime Grunlan, the associate professor at Texas A&M who headed the research effort, says the innovative packaging material could preserve a carbonated drink’s fizz better than anything on the market. The film is 70 percent clay particles, more eco-friendly than plastics, and thousands of times thinner than a single hair.
Grunlan’s coating is water, a soluble polymer, and clay. “It’s basically dirt,” he says. “It’s my understanding that clay is food-contact approved. With the polymer we’re using, if it’s not food-contact approved, we can switch to another polymer. This is a very tailorable technology for changing properties or toxicity.”
Dozens of food companies were apparently paying close attention to the new product’s discovery. Soon after the press conference announcing its innovation, Grunlan received a flurry of more than 50 e-mails from high-profile food companies. “All kinds of very famous food makers” wanted a closer look at the nanotechnology packaging, he says.
“The technology that we’re developing is the best gas barrier ... that is in existence as a coating, period,” Grunlan says. He anticipates that within two years, “somebody could have this in a [food] project.”
The packaging breakthrough was unveiled at the 241st National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, in Anaheim, California, this spring. “I’m trying to get people to call this [product] a ‘nano brick wall,’” Grunlan says. “The ‘brick’ refers to the clay we use in the film.”
The nano brick wall will likely run smack into a proverbial brick wall, however, when it comes to the quick-serve industry’s expected reception to the technology.
Many in the food industry fear the “wrath of the consumer, and it’s become worse over the last three or four years,” says John Floros, head of the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University.
Consumers, he says, could be wary of the potential dangers of the unfamiliar nanotechnology and fear that it will affect their food’s safety.
“What about that nano particle? Will it be in my food? We don’t know,” he says. “Some fear should be there. It’s an unknown technology.
“We have basically accepted some risks and not others,” Floros says. “What can we do to minimize risk and maximize benefits? If we could take bio-based material packaging, and make those bio-products stronger and better, then why shouldn’t we do it? What if, in the process, we not only made nanotechnology, but we also gave it qualities like antimicrobial?”
The potential financial and social benefits of nanotechnologies across a variety of sectors has even caught the attention of the Obama administration. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the federal government will invest $123.5 million in the environmental, health, and safety dimensions of nanotechnology.
Floros says ideally companies and consumers would balance the risks and benefits, but “the consumer wants no risks whatsoever.”
He says nanotechnology should prove most enticing to soft-drink bottlers, as using it to reduce packaging waste would be of great benefit.
Kerry Snow, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo Inc., says the soft-drink company “currently does not use ingredients manufactured using nanotechnology in our products and packaging.”
But, she says, it is something the company is paying close attention to. “As research and applications of nanotechnology are rapidly maturing, our scientists are closely following developments in nanotechnology in areas of safety and government regulations worldwide,” she says.
“Pepsi, if they have left the door open, then it’s to their credit,” Floros says.
Grunlan says future upgrades to the nano brick wall could include antimicrobial behavior and UV resistance. “Specific applications will require some tweaking,” he says, but the unique substrate could be used “to make a cup for McDonald’s, or wraps and cartons.”
A McDonald’s Corporation website on food safety lists hot-button words that typically evoke strong consumer sentiment, including animal cloning, antibiotics, and nanotechnology.
The phrases are presented within the context of “complex considerations of what it means to deliver affordable, safe food.” The site says the company is “working to understand the use of nanotechnology and its application in food and packaging products. Given the current uncertainty related to potential impacts of nano-engineered materials, McDonald’s does not currently support the use by suppliers of nano-engineered materials in the production of any of our food, packaging, and toys.”
The company declined further comment.
“McDonald’s, Kraft, and PepsiCo—they’re not going” for nanotechnology, says Michael Passoff, senior strategist to As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group. Passoff authored a blog post in April, posted on TriplePundit.com, titled “Yes or No on Nanoparticles in Food?” Alarmed by what he calls a “lack of oversight” in nanotechnology, he researched industry food giants like McDonald’s.
“I spoke to McDonald’s several times. They sent notices to suppliers that they didn’t want nano particles in their products,” Passoff says. “They’re doing all the right things—they’re taking a precautionary approach on new and continuing products.”
He says the company is also backing away from nanotechnology in packaging solutions.
“The science is scaring them,” he says. “It’s raised a ton of red flags.” Of course, Passoff says, companies are not technically required to report on nano use as a safety issue.
Darrel Suderman, the inventor of KFC’s Popcorn Chicken while he worked for the company, left a management position at Quiznos in late 2009 and is now president of Food Technical Consulting in Denver. He says he’s been working with major quick serves for almost a year, and hasn’t heard nanotechnology come up once.
While improved packaging in the supply chain might gain more food-safety cushion time, he says, the danger of a public backlash remains a strong warning to tread carefully.
“The public is usually clueless about how the fast food distribution industry operates,” he says. “It’s hidden from them, so to speak. So, if word gets out, because a competitor goes through the Dumpster, that may raise questions as to why they’re using that particular product.”