Nano grows in the Netherlands’ Food Valley
As the Netherlands nurtures its food and nanotechnology pursuits to produce what may be the world’s leading locale for advancing food-related development, it finds a unique support structure
BY GAIL PURVIS
Convergence of micro systems, fluidics, functional molecular cell design, and supra-molecular chemistry now brings all food size structures within reach, says Dr. Frans Kampers, director of BioNT (www.biont.wur.nl), the Wageningen, Netherlands-based research center focused on the fundamental science and technology of micro- and nanosystems and their applications in food and health. Kampers is the center’s strategic research coordinator in bio-nanotechnology. His remit encompasses quality assurance through sensing and diagnostics, food design, safety monitoring and control, innovative processing, encapsulation and delivery, and packaging and logistics.
The center’s location in Wageningen is no accident. This area aims to become to the food industry what San Jose, Calif., area is to the semiconductor industry. It’s even referred to as Food Valley (www.foodvalley.nl/english/default.aspx).
EBI Food Safety (www.ebifoodsafety.com), also in Wageningen, has developed the first commercial bacteriophage product, Listex, which targets Listeria monocytogenes-pathogenics with a 30% mortality rate. Listex was granted the U.S. FDA-GRAS (generally regarded as safe) approval in October 2006; organic EU approval in June 2007, and an extension of GRAS approval from the FDA and USDA for use with all food products susceptible to Listeria.
“This opens the door for meat and fish processing companies to also use Listex,” says Mark Offerhaus, EBI’s CEO. “The reason for using natural phages for nano bio-control is that these are extremely host-specific,” he says. “Phages do not affect desirable flora or starter cultures; are completely biological; do not change the taste, smell, or food color; are easy to apply, etc.”
Phages are very useful nano-structure tools. For instance, peptides with binding specificity use the phage display (a test to screen for protein interactions) to indicate silicon dislocations and defects in semiconductor processing, as well as in the assembly of alloys for thin-film battery anodes and nanowire creation. And San Diego’s Kent Sea Technology Corp. (www.kent seatech.com) is working on a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Advanced Technology Program (ATP) award of nearly $2 million in a three-year project to replace conventional antibiotics treatment with bacteriophage therapeutics for prevention of bacterial diseases in commercial aquaculture.
Bacteriophages (or phages-virus-like agents that infect bacteria) are useful nano-structure tools. (Image courtesy of Purdue University)
Using a different nano-based tool, DSM Nutritional Products (www.dsm.com), partnering with Check-Points BV (www.check-points.com), has introduced Premi Test Salmonella, a DNA-based method for detecting and identifying 62 of the most prevalent salmonella serotypes (and, given eight hours, many more). Results are generated using a custom reader and supporting software. The test now has official certification in France through AFNOR (Association Française de Normalisation-the French national organization for standardization) and the U.S. through AOAC International (dedicated to worldwide confidence in analytical results). Validated internally, it claims to provide the fastest method with the greatest level of precision compared to traditional Kaufmann-White serotyping.
A physicist with an instrumentation and measurement background, Kampers sees nano as invaluable for moving sampling from offline, laboratory procedures to production lines-via handheld devices enabling inline sampling and quick diagnosis.
TNO (www.tno.nl/en) is producing a device, the I-chip (“I” for “intestinal”), that will measure shifts in intestinal complex flora to facilitate fast and cost-effective health insurance claims and product development, provide quality assurance, and offer a selection of starter cultures and pre/probiotics. Custom chips can be developed in six weeks and can analyze multiple samples within a day (conventional methods require up to a week for a few samples). Currently the I-chip has biomarkers for more than 400 intestinal bacteria.
Another chip is being developed to measure flora composition in relation to such parameters as age, food patterns, allergies, and illnesses such as Crohn’s disease. An S-chip (“S” for “skin”) in development is designed to support skin-friendly product development. Besides working in microbial production processes and genomics, TNO focuses on food ingredients, industrial biopolymers, food processing, structures, and applications.
Nanomi (www.nanomi.com)-based on the disparate technologies of Medspray, Aquamarijn Micro Filtration, and Demcon Advanced Mechatronics-has used nanotechnology to develop intriguing approaches for separation, fractionation (for production of high-quality milk), and membrane emulsification. Its method of double emulsion for liquids enables precision “tailoring” so that, for instance, a core of water encased in an oil droplet lowers fat content but leaves the original taste.
Down the production line, nanocomposites are promising to enable intelligent packaging, control of the atmosphere and of microbial activity, toxins detection, and metabolic products. “Imagine what happens when cheap, printable electronics and RFID systems for track-and-trace are combined with sensors,” says Kampers.
He urges that better definition is needed. “Some nanotechnologies result in nanoparticles, but most do not. Some nanoparticles are nanotechnology, but most are not. All food contains nanostructures as fibers and gels. But how much modification makes natural nanostructures into nanotechnology?” asks Kampers. “Some food products could be considered to contain nanotechnology but do not mention it. Should there be a nano-label, or perhaps a ‘man-made’ nano-label?”
As the industry struggles to answer these questions and also grapple with those sensitive topics of biotech, life sciences, and consumer goods, with its ambition to create a food equivalent of silicon valley, the Netherlands seems to have its own growth template firmly in place.
Unusual synergies facilitate food development
Unlike the U.S., where great chunks of nanotechnology work are funded by the government’s DARPA program, or in the U.K., where direction comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and, to a certain extent, the Ministry of Defense, the Netherlands’ prime motivator and funding source is the agriculture and food industry. In moving toward nano, the semiconductor industry has found a happy ally here. There’s real synergy among these areas in the Netherlands, and while it won’t produce the best technology-equipped warrior, it may well pay off in the areas of food, medicines, and cosmetics.
Employing 15,000 people in food/agro science, the Netherlands’ “Food Valley” hosts more than 1,440 food-related companies, 70 food-sciences companies, and 21 food/agro research institutes. Major food companies include Heinz, Campina, Smithfield, Unilever, CP Kelco, Nestle, Sobel, Mead Johnson, Masterfoods, Heineken, Givaudan, Grolsch, Monsanto, Abbott Laboratories, Nippon Suisan, Numico Research, and Royal Friesland Food.
Some of the funding for NanoNed (www.nanoned.nl) has facilitated development in Food Valley. NanoNed is a Dutch national nanotechnology R&D initiative-and partnership with Philips-that brings together nano efforts with relevant scientific, economic, and social research and infrastructure projects. It is a combination of disparate groups (advisory board members source from FEI, Solvay Pharmaceuticals, DSM Research BV, Shell Global Solutions, IMEC, Bronkhorst High Tech BV, Akzo Nobel Central Research BV C2v, ASML Netherlands BV, Philips Research, Friesland Foods, and Unilever), and it is organized into 11 discipline groups: Advanced Nanoprobing, Bottom-up Nano Electronics, Chemistry and Physics of Individual Molecules, BioNanoSystems, Nano Electronic Materials, Nano Fabrication, Nano Fluidics, Nano Instrumentation, Nano Photonics, Nano Spintronics, and Quantum Computation. Altogether approximately 200 research projects have been defined.
NanoNed launched NanoLab NL as a national nanotechnology facility. NanoLab NL combines the existing facilities of Twente, Delft, and Groningen, carrying out a targeted, five-year, €80 million reinvestment as part of the NanoNed initiative. The first €18 million phase of this program had begun under the Nanoimpulse initiative, a Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs technology program that provides funding for nano R&D. NanoLab NL coordinates the use of the facilities, tariffs, investments, and the cooperation with industry, and places a special emphasis on small and medium-sized high-tech enterprises.
The Netherlands’ nano-food pursuit is backed by a very strong technology foundation, and the result is a most unusual synergy that influences developments in food. For instance, Belgium-based IMEC established the Holst Centre (www.holstcen tre.com) in Eindhoven and runs “wireless autonomous transducer solutions” activities through Stichting IMEC Nederland (www.imec-nl.nl) there that impact the food industry (e.g., RFID tagging of cattle for milk production). Also in the center, the Netherlands’ independent R&D organization TNO runs the “system-in-foil products and production” (printing electronics on thin substrates) activities that has application to food packaging.
Finally, the country’s Food & Nutrition Delta program (www.foodnutritiondelta.nl) aims to make the Netherlands a leading innovation region in food and nutrition. It does so by promoting market-driven innovations and investing in competence development. Themes are food and health; sensory and structure; bioingredients and functionality; consumer behavior; safety and preservation; and adjacent technology for food and nutrition.