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Chemicals in food packaging: a can of worms? (updated 29th Jan 2015)

Back in July, a report from the Food Packaging Forum highlighted that many hazardous chemicals are used in food contact packaging – and we wrote a letter to EU Health Commissioner Borg expressing our concerns about the situation. The Commission has since stated that it is soon to start a study of this issue at the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC).

On October 9th the Food Packaging Forum organised a conference to discuss this problem in more detail. The agenda, pdfs of presentations and videos of the presentations are all available on the conference web page.

I attended the conference and found it very interesting – and eye-opening in parts! It re-emphasised the need for the regulations in this area to be revisited, showed the importance of the science on low dose effects of the widely used chemical Bisphenol A and also opened a can of worms around the wide (and largely unknown) assortment of chemicals that really leach out of packaging.

The presentations that particularly struck me were:

  • Prof. Angel Nadal of Universidad Miguel Hernández de Elche, Spain (Twitter: @AngelNadal1) gave a detailed and quite technical description of research showing that Bisphenol A (used in food can linings, till receipts etc) affects insulin levels at very low levels  (video, presentation). You may find the video more accessible than the presentation.
  • Dr Pete Myers of Environmental Health Sciences (Twitter: @petemyers) gave a very clear presentation explaining the mistakes that have been made by the US FDA and others in assessing the safety of Bisphenol A; he also briefly described work he is involved in to design out endocrine disruption in new chemicals (video, presentation).
  • Dr Konrad Grob, from the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zurich, Switzerland gave a very eye opening presentation on the reality of the mixture of chemicals that leach out of food packaging. His data demonstrated that there are much higher concentrations of chemicals migrating from food contact materials in food than there are pesticide residues, and also that many of these chemicals are unknown. The main source of these chemicals is Oligomers, Reaction Products & Impurities (OPRI), with this mix of chemicals making up the majority of the chemicals leaching from packaging into food. He proposed a method of starting to address the vast complexity created by this mixture, a complexity which he believes means that the requirements of safety legislation are not (and cannot) be met at the moment (video, presentation)

Many other presentations were also interesting, including Professor Thomas Backhaus (twitter: @ThoBaSwe) who gave a good summary of the complexities of chemical risk assessment (video, presentation). Dr. Birgit Geueke of the Food Packaging Forum also presented their research on hazardous chemicals in food packaging (video, presentation).

How will the EU respond to these challenges?

It’s clear that the current regulations do not properly protect us, and hopefully the JRC study will provide a good start to a process to improve the regulations. CHEM Trust will be monitoring this, to make sure the study does the job needed – and doesn’t take too long.

It’s also clear that there needs to be action on Bisphenol A rather than continued delay and argument – the French Government’s proposal to ban its use in thermal paper is one important move in the right direction.

In the meantime it is clear that any companies who use food packaging – including retailers who sell it to consumers – need to find out more about what they are using, as the regulatory system is not good enough to protect them – or the public – from hazardous chemicals.

Update, 29th January 2015

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) held the first workshop of a new expert network looking at chemicals in Food Contact packaging in November 2014.

EFSA has now posted a feature story on their website about this workshop, which confirms the weakness of the current regulatory system in Europe and the lack of knowledge about the chemicals used:

“Did you know that plastics and some ceramics used in food contact materials are regulated at European level and evaluated by EFSA for safety but a wide range of other materials – coatings, paper and board, adhesives, printing inks and rubber – are not? Small traces of these materials used in packaging, containers, cutlery and other articles can enter food and may pose a potential health risk to consumers. However, there is a lack of detailed science information about many of the substances found in these materials that makes this area of food safety particularly challenging.”

As mentioned above, the European Commission are due to get their Joint Research Centre to start new project on this problem; we are still waiting for confirmation that this research has started.