On Friday 18th December 2020, the European Commission finally kicked off a revision of EU laws on chemicals in food contact materials (FCM), with the publication of an Inception Impact Assessment (IIA) for consultation. Almost everything we eat has been in contact with one or more FCMs, including food packaging, factory equipment and kitchen utensils; since 2014 CHEM Trust has been pointing that the EU’s FCM laws are outdated, and ineffective in protecting people and the environment.
The day before the IIA was published, EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius highlighted problems with the current FCM laws at a meeting of the Environment Council. He gave the example of Bisphenol A, a well-known endocrine disrupting chemical, which is still allowed in FCM despite being banned in babies’ bottles and thermal paper.
CHEM Trust has been working alongside a broad coalition of consumer, health, and environmental NGOs, to advocate for a new legal framework based on ‘5 Key Principles‘. We welcome the IIA as the first step towards delivering a new framework, consistent with the commitments in the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and its aim of a toxic-free environment.
The IIA sets out two options to revise the FCM legislation: (1) use the current regulatory framework as a cornerstone, and (2) develop a new regulatory framework, replacing the current Regulation. In CHEM Trust’s view it is necessary to create a new regulatory framework for FCM, and any attempt to use the current framework will lead a confused and ineffective system.
Banning the worst chemicals
The IIA proposes that the most harmful chemicals (called “Tier 1 substances” in the assessment), including endocrine disrupting chemicals, those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMRs), and persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances will not be permitted in FCM. This ‘generic risk assessment’ approach, which is set out in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, is a fundamental departure from the current FCM rules. At the moment, public authorities generally only establish limits for how much of a substance is allowed to migrate into food, even if the substance can cause long-term and irreversible damage and is known to be contaminating humans and the environment.
In addition, the IIA commits for better protection of sensitive populations, such as pregnant women and children. It also promises to consider the combination effects of chemicals, which should help to bring safety assessments closer in line to our real-world exposures to chemical mixtures.
CHEM Trust has suggested that one tool in creating a more controlled system would be for the Commission establish a positive list of safe starting substances for FCM, based on the approach recently agreed for materials in contact with drinking water.
Worrying reliance on industry self-regulation
The IIA also proposes setting general safety levels for final materials, and relying on industry self-regulation to achieve them. It also suggests outsourcing compliance checks to private companies. In CHEM Trust’s view this is a risky approach, as according to the Commission’s own analysis, one of the problems with the current system is that companies have not been able to ensure the flow of information through the supply chain and guarantee compliance. In addition, industry compliance processes have been found to be ineffective or open to manipulation.
Another major concern with FCM is the presence of Non-intentionally Added Substances (NIAS), which are by-products and impurities from the production process, and have been found to migrate into our food in large volumes. In our view the Commission does not present an effective solution to address this issue.
In CHEM Trust’s view the Commission needs to do more work in order to create an effective and resilient system that can address the multiple issues with final food contact materials. Relying on industry self-regulation will not be sufficient.
Stefan Scheuer, Chief EU policy advocate at CHEM Trust said:
“This initiative is a key milestone in closing the chemicals safety gap for food packaging in the EU. The new Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability provides the right direction for re-writing the rules. We welcome that the most harmful chemicals are to be banned.
In the meantime, existing procedures should be used immediately to tackle the most harmful groups of chemicals, such as the bisphenols and the forever chemicals PFAS.”
CHEM Trust will be responding formally to the inception impact assessment over the next few weeks; the Commission’s consultation on the IIA closes on 29th January 2021.
- For more information see our page on Chemicals in Food Contact Materials.