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National Organic Program Leaves Door Open to Nanotechnology in Organic

March 26, 2015
Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

Decision Stuns Organic Community and Undercuts Recommendations of its Appointed Advisory Board

March 26, 2015 (Washington, DC)—Against the objections by the large majority of the organic community, guidance issued yesterday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program (USDA/NOP) will now allow companies to petition to use nanotechnology in organic products, rather than prohibit it as was expected.  The new guidance disregards recommendations made by the Agency’s own appointed advisors, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which determined that: “there is an overwhelming agreement within the organic industry to prohibit nanotechnology in organic production and processing” (Oct. 28, 2010).

“This decision by USDA defies common sense and undermines organic,” said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at Center for Food Safety and nanotechnology expert.  “Fundamentally, nanomaterials are synthetic, can be toxic and are not found in nature in their manufactured form.  They do not belong in organic, plain and simple.”

Nanotechnology is a platform technology for manipulating materials at the atomic and molecular level.  The resultant manufactured nanomaterials are so small that they cannot be seen with an ordinary microscope. Yet “nano” means more than just tiny.  Nano engineered materials have the capacity to act in fundamentally novel ways, ways that cannot be predicted of the same materials at larger scale. Their exponentially small size gives them extraordinary mobility and their unique chemical and biological properties increase the potential for biological interaction and enhanced toxicity.

The U.S. organic community has consistently agreed that, like genetic engineering, nanomaterials must be excluded from organic foods and packing.  In fact, in response to public outcry, the food industry as a whole is moving away from nanotechnology in food.  Just this month, Dunkin’ Donuts announced that it will no longer use nanomaterials in its donuts—specifically nano-titanium dioxide in its powdered sugar. McDonald’s and Kraft have also previously announced that they do not use nanomaterials in their products. 

“It is unfathomable that while so many companies are taking nanomaterials out of their foods, that the National Organic Program has devised a gateway for ushering nanomaterials into organic foods,” said Dr. Lisa J. Bunin, organic policy director at Center for Food Safety.  “This guidance needs to change.”

USDA/NOP’s approach to nanotechnology runs counter to most other nation’s organic programs.  Canada, Australia and Austria have prohibited nanoparticles smaller than 100 nanometers(nm) from organic foods. The United Kingdom prohibits nanomaterials smaller than 200nm.  Instead, the NOP has established a process whereby companies can petition to allow nanomaterials into their food as a synthetic ingredient.  Moreover, the new NOP guidance is silent on nanoparticles in packaging, which is an increasingly common application of the technology. 

“It is surprising to see USDA taking actions that are inconsistent with our organic trading partners, especially since the U.S. has been rushing to establish equivalency agreements with other nations and economic regions,” said Dr. Bunin.  “This latest action has the potential to render such agreements null and void, which is neither in the country’s best interests nor those of our nation’s own organic producers.”

These are examples of known and developing uses of nanotechnology in agriculture and food products:

  • Food additives, such as for coloring, flavoring, enhanced absorption of nutrients or modifying texture
  • Packaging, including quantum dots for traceability, UV light filters, nanoclays as gas barriers and carbon nanotubes to alter strength-to-weight ratio, nanosilver as an antimicrobial
  • Environmental, such as soil remediation
  • Pesticides, such as pesticide delivery in nanoemulsions and nanoencapsulation, pesticidal feed additives
  • Plastic containers and wraps with stain and water resistant coatings.


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