Nanotechnology: The Next Big Battleground for CPG Companies

Last month, a food fight (pun intended) broke out between Mother Jones and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) over reports about a massive groundswell of new and unregulated nanotechnology in the food supply.

The misleading allegations about the use of nanotechnology in milk and dairy products received little attention and were quickly rebuked by PEN, a project of the Wilson Center and the PEW Charitable Trusts.  Anyone in the food industry observing the volley between the two sides surely breathed a sigh of relief.

Then, this week, the other shoe dropped.  The FDA issued guidance for food and cosmetic manufacturers regarding the use of nanotechnology.  In addition, the FDA is seeking comments on its updated nanotechnology fact sheet by September 10th.

Here is the current bottom line from FDA:

“Industry remains responsible for ensuring that its products meet all applicable legal requirements, including standards for safety — regardless of the emerging nature of a technology involved in the manufacturing of a product. FDA encourages industry to consult with the Agency early in the product development process to address any questions related to the safety, effectiveness, or other attributes of products that contain nanomaterials, or about the regulatory status of such products. Early consultations with FDA facilitate a mutual understanding of the specific scientific and regulatory issues for nanotechnology products.”

That’s nothing new. Manufacturers have been – and always will be – responsible for the safety of their products.  While Mother Jones’ story was quickly debunked, one fact remains – industry consultations with FDA on nanotechnology remain voluntary.  That fact alone is enough to set off a feeding frenzy by the NGO groups and activist organizations in their role as self-proclaimed industry watchdogs.

Right now, the anti-food folks and their trial lawyer friends are not really focused on nanotechnology.  It is not prevalent in the food supply.  Don’t expect things to stay that way.  The technology and its uses will advance exponentially in the coming months.  As nanotechnology use increases, so will the NGO attacks seeking to heighten consumer fear, calls for more regulation and eventually class action lawsuits.

The food, beverage and consumer products industry is currently engaged on a wide swath of legislative, regulatory and marketplace issues including GMO food ingredients, chemicals management, product labeling, GRAS reform, sodium and sugar.  At the same time, CPG executives are constantly looking into their crystal ball to get a glimpse of issues just beyond the horizon that can affect their operating environment.

Nanotechnology is just around the corner.  So industry executives need to keep one eye on the future, get ahead of the game and explain to consumers what nanotechnology is, why it is safe, how it benefits people and how it contributes to a safe, abundant and affordable food supply.

Otherwise, industry may find itself involved in another costly battle for the hearts and minds of consumers and a protracted war on the regulatory and legislative front.

Sean McBride, Founder and Principal of DSM Strategic Communications & Consulting, LLC, is former Executive Vice President of Communications & Membership Services at the Grocery Manufacturers Association and former Director of Communications at the American Beverage Association