Food Technology: Charting Unknown Territories

The ever-changing industry of food products is one that is hard to keep up with. Much like electronics, or cars, or even toys, the industry is consistently innovating and creating new technologies and applying them to the food that we eat.

Engineering our food products is not new – it has been around for decades on a large scale. In previous posts on this blog, we have addressed some of the legal implications of genetically modified foods and labeling claims related to organic or all-natural foods. But these are topics about which the FDA, USDA, and other regulatory agencies have offered input in the form of statutes and/or regulations.

Some of the technologies now being incorporated into products by the food industry are outside the scope of any current legislation – in short, the regulatory bodies can’t keep up with the industry’s new abilities. This is not surprising – GMOs have been available and on the market for nearly twenty years, but it is something which has only appeared on the public’s consciousness in the last few years. The governmental agencies are still trying to sort out what to do with a technology that’s been available for two decades – which means that new technologies are not yet on their radar. Some examples that currently escape significant (or any) regulation in the United States include processing techniques, like hydrostatic pressure and high-heat pressurization, and ‘extreme’ genetic engineering, i.e., Synthetic Biology or “SynBio.”

With these new technologies, and without the benefit of guidance from legislation and/or regulation, players on all sides of the food industry – producers, manufacturers, farmers, consumers – face clear uncertainty as to the legal risks to which they may be exposed. As Eliza Barclay stated about SynBio foods, they are the “new frontier” that ultimately create many more questions than there are answers for at present. In fact, the United Nations and the European Commission issued a joint report in 2012, which stated that SynBio foods may create a security risk to countries, thereby complicating an already unknown set of factors that could affect anyone in the supply chain wanting to use this technology.

Whether you are on the forefront of these innovations, a mid-stream company using the products as ingredients, or an end-user, the ever constant presence of change merits an especially heightened awareness and attention to potential risks. Delving deeply into any and all available information on any new technology is a key step towards effectively navigating the uncertainties that these types of advances present.

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