Engineered Nanoparticles in Consumer Products

In October 2010 the National Organic Standards Board recommended that engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) be prohibited from food products bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s coveted Organic Label. In March of 2015, the USDA rejected the recommendation, permitting ENMs to be incorporated into organic foods after a petition process. ENMs are permitted to be included in conventional foods without a petition process. In either case, there is no requirement to label a product as containing ENMs.

ENMs are used for a variety of purposes in food. This includes enhancing flavor, extending shelf-life, and improving nutrition. ENMs like titanium dioxide have been used to increase the whiteness of mints, milk, yogurt, and dairy substitutes while other ENMs are used in to preserve chocolate, salad dressings, cereal, and pasta.

Prior to issuing its recommendation, the National Organic Standards Board received thousands of public comments and petition signatures supporting the ban and virtually none opposing it. Food production companies, on the other hand, have invested heavily in nanotechnology and see ENMs as essential to reducing food waste and improving nutritional content.

As for the potential effects of the consumption of ENMs, there is little conclusive data. No evidence has shown that consumption of ENM enhanced foods causes any health issues, although some warn that any issues which may arise will come much later. Due to the size of ENMs, they are more likely than larger particles to enter human cells, cross the blood-brain barrier, or move across the placenta from mother to fetus. They have been shown to damage DNA, cause lesions on the liver and kidneys, and disrupt cellular functions. However, those studies were conducted on animal models and involved substantial and direct exposure to ENMs at much higher concentrations than any human consuming food would be exposed to.

Questions to ask/Concepts to Apply

Note that for some of these questions there are likely multiple reasonable answers

  1. The warning that “any issues which may arise will come much later” is emphasizing which feature of a social experiment?
  2. If the long-term use of ENMs were to damage human DNA, leading to increases in cancer or other health problems, this would be an example of which form of techno-social interaction?
  3. Despite some evidence, it is not completely clear whether ENMs can enter human cells or cross the blood-brain barrier. This lack of information is best characterized as which aspect of a social experiment?
  4. Which feature of the case best illustrates the idea that technology often lacks an experimental control?
  5. Using ENMs to increase the whiteness of mints, etc. is an example of which form of techno-social interaction?
  6. As an engineer working with ENMs, if you were to agree to sign off on the introduction of ENMs to consumer products, which NSPE Fundamental Canon would potentially support your decision?
  7. Refusing to include a label on a product indicating that it contains ENMs is most likely a violation of which NSPE Fundamental Canon?
  8. If you had recommended against introducing ENMs into your company’s products because you believed they were a threat to public safety, but your company chose to proceed anyway, what would be your next course of action, according to the NSPE Code of Ethics?
  9. What is one possible example of technical determinism that could arise as a result of the introduction of ENMs into society?

Answer Key

  1. Technological ignorance, because it doesn’t specify what the issues may be
  2. Side-Effect
  3. Technological uncertainty, because we are aware of a potential risk, but not of its likelihood
  4. Lack of labeling of products, meaning that most people are not aware they are ‘participating’ in the experiment
  5. Image, since these sorts of uses simply encourage use on the basis of wanting to appear or be a certain way
  6. Canon 4: Be a faithful agent or trustee of your client or employer, since it appears the companies want to push the products out
  7. Canon 3: Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner, since labels can be considered ‘public statements’. Canon 5 (Avoid Deceptive Acts) may also apply, although in this case there is no clear intention to deceive
  8. Report the issue to relevant authorities, which may be internal to the company or external, as necessary to protect the public safety
  9. If ENMs do turn out to produce permanent genetic changes in humans, and those changes are widespread, then those could be an example of technology creating long-lasting social change. Alternatively, if ENMs are an effective means of substantially reducing food waste, then it could result in other major social or technological changes relating to our relationship to food and food waste. [Note: This question was quite open-ended to just get you thinking about ‘technical determinism’ – there was nothing immediately obvious in the case to draw from]


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The Primacy of the Public by Marcus Schultz-Bergin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.