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EU Parliament starts inquiry into regulation of chemicals in food packaging as concerns mount

Our food comes into contact with a whole range of food contact materials made from industrial chemicals, from food packaging to pipes. The EU has laws that are supposed to regulate the safety of these chemicals, but they are full of gaps and largely ignore some key issues. A number of events in recent weeks have emphasised the scale of the problem, while the European Parliament has started to investigate the issue.

CHEM Trust has been highlighting this issue for over a year, with our particular concerns being:

  • Continued use of hormone disrupting chemicals in food contact materials (see the blog post about our letter to the previous EU Health Commissioner, from July 2014).
  • The lack of harmonised EU laws covering chemicals in many food contact materials, including paper, card, ink, coatings and glues (see the blog on our long quest to get the European Commission’s DG Health to reveal the details of a study they have commissioned). Without EU harmonisation, different EU governments have different laws, and different levels of protection for the public.
  • Research showing that a wide range of chemicals migrate from food contact materials, well beyond those chemicals are supposed to make up the packaging. These ‘Non Intentionally Added Substances’ (or ‘NIAS’) are often of unknown structure and toxicity (see our “can of worms” blog).

Here’s a brief run through of the latest developments:

1) European Parliament starts an investigation

The European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety have decided to investigate the implementation of the EU’s regulations on chemicals in food contact materials. This investigation – which is led by the Danish MEP Christel Schaldemose – is just beginning, and will be a really good opportunity to examine the failures of this regulatory system.

2) Food Packaging Forum conference in Zurich hears about problems, industry concerns

A few weeks ago I went to this year’s conference organised by the Zurich-Based Food Packaging Forum. Like last years event, it was a very informative day of presentations and discussions by different stakeholders in the discussion – the presentations and videos are available on-line. The first presentation is a very good introduction to the problem, pointing out that:

  • Thousands of chemicals are used in food contact materials, including > 5000 substances in inks, yet there are only around 1000 chemicals on EU’s approved list (because most non-plastic packaging materials are not covered by harmonised EU regulations).
  • There are an unknown number of non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), with 95-98% of the substances migrating from can coatings being NIAS, and 60-90% of those migrating from polypropylene being NIAS.
  • Exposure to mixtures of chemicals can increase toxicity, and people are particularly sensitive in some stages of life, e.g. in the womb and early childhood.

Other interesting presentations include:

One particularly striking element of the discussion this year was the extent to which the packaging and food industries are unhappy with the current situation. It’s clear that many companies would prefer regulation to be harmonised at EU level, rather than dependent on individual governments.

3) Commission resists harmonisation at Luxembourg EU presidency event

Luxembourg currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and they held a conference on food contact materials on 30th September.

It’s clear that many industry speakers at this event pushed strongly for more EU-level regulatory harmonisation (i.e. common laws across the EU, agreed at EU level), with the official notes from the event emphasising this issue:

“There was overall agreement that a greater degree of harmonisation of the rules on the FCM sector was desirable at EU level, although there is currently no clear way forward on how to achieve this.”

“For industry, harmonised rules at EU-level were clearly preferable. It was stated that divergent MS rules and risk assessments would hinder rather than foster the functioning of the internal market.”

Chemical Watch’s coverage also quotes the Acting Director of DG Health’s Safety of the Food Chain Directorate, Dr Michael Flueh:

Only for plastics is there substantial harmonisation across the EU, Dr Flueh said, and he implied this represents the limit of what the Commission has the resources to achieve. “The rules for plastic are complex. This is where we have evaluated 1,000 substances. How much time would it take to evaluate 10,000 more?”

“Commission President Juncker wants us to focus on the big things, such as modernising and simplifying regulation. The Commission has less and less resources every year. Mutual recognition is the pillar of the single market and we aim to improve mutual recognition rather than engage in further harmonisation.”

Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said:

“It’s not acceptable for the European Commission to argue that the safety of chemicals in our food is too hard to do or not a ‘big thing’.

The protection of public health is a core part of the EU’s role.

CHEM Trust welcomes the European Parliament’s inquiry as a start to sorting out this mess, and looks forward to the Commission taking a more constructive approach”

It’s worth noting that no-one really knows what ‘mutual recognition’ would mean in this case. For example, Switzerland has rules on ink in food packaging already in place, while Germany has rules under discussion. Would mutual recognition mean that the rest of the EU would rely on the Swiss or Germans to make and amend the rules? Or would Germany have to accept packaging that breaks its rules?

4) EFSA trying to take short cuts in assessment of chemical safety?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recently carried out a consultation on risk assessment of chemicals from food contact materials.

CHEM Trust submitted a response to this consultation, in which we express concern that EFSA are proposing the use of a problematic method called ‘Threshold of Toxicological Concern’ to address NIAS chemicals, even when their structure is not known. Our comments were covered by Chemical Watch:

In its consultation response, NGO ChemTrust says the text contradicts Efsa’s opinion on the use of TTC from 2012, in which it states that the approach “is applicable to substances for which the chemical structure is known. It is vitally important that no-one who reads this document gets the impression that TTC is some sort of magic method that can be used to claim that an unknown chemical is safe.”

We are not the only ones critical of EFSA’s proposed approach, with the expert NGO Food Packaging Forum also submitting a critical response.

5) Nasty chemicals in your pizza box – but good news on microwave popcorn, in Denmark at least.

The Danish Consumer Council is doing a lot of testing of products, including packaging, for problem chemicals. They took a look at Pizza boxes, and found a number of hormone disrupting chemicals (bisphenol A, nonylphenol and phthalates); they also found persistent perfluorocarbons (PFCs). They suggest that the chemicals are there due to the use of recycled paper, which emphasises the need for proper controls on paper and board packaging, and need to make sure that recycling policy addresses hazardous chemicals.

In better news, we have already mentioned the problem of persistent PFC chemicals in the packaging of microwave popcorn, where the Danish Co-op supermarket had decided to remove this product from their shelves. The good news is that a supplier has come up with a PFC-free alternative, and the Co-op in Denmark will now re-introduce microwave popcorn to their shelves.

It’s not only in Denmark where concerns are being raised about cardboard packaging. A second NGO, Food Watch in Germany, has started a campaign about the migration of mineral oils found in cardboard packaging. Their testing found mineral oils in rice, pasta and cornflakes, and they have created a petition calling for it to be compulsory for companies to put in a barrier between the food and the cardboard to prevent this migration.

Update, 13th November

Chemical Watch has covered the launch of the European Parliament’s inquiry, and summarised a workshop on the issue in the European Parliament on Thursday 12th Nov:

Ludovica Verzegnassi from Nestlé’s chemical safety department emphasised that industry wants new, harmonised EU legislation. However, Chantal Bruetschy from the Commission’s DG for Health and Consumers, said the EU system for FCM regulation is one of the best in the world.

Michael Warhurst, executive director of CHEM Trust, told Chemical Watch Ms Bruetschy’s comments failed to recognise what he sees as “the scale of failure of the current system. We hope the European Parliament’s inquiry will highlight these failings and put pressure on the Commission to develop a better system.”

This hearing has also been reported on by Food Packaging Forum.