EU regulation of chemicals in food contact (FCM) applications, such as packaging, pipes or cooking equipment, is a strange world about which many readers focusing on REACH, RoHS or BPR may have little knowledge.
I first noticed these laws after starting as Executive Director of CHEM Trust in 2014 and was amazed to discover the EU had built a system to create a positive list of chemicals used in food contact plastics, but not for materials such as paper, ink and glues. There was no link with REACH’s designation of substances of very high concern. In fact there was no link to REACH at all.
We wrote with our concerns that same year to health commissioner Tonio Borg. We wrote to the next commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis in 2015 and, most recently, to Stella Kyriakides. She at least gave us a promising reply, giving a clear indication that the Commission is aware of the need for improvements to the EU’s laws regulating the use of chemicals in FCMs, such as packaging and factory equipment.
Five and a half years on, there are still no EU-harmonised lists for many FCMs, only an assortment of national rules and an overarching requirement that food contact materials “do not transfer their constituents to food in quantities which could endanger human health” (EU FCM Regulation 2004).
Professionals involved in the EU FCM system say it would be impossible to create a positive list for inks for example, using the current laws – in spite of the fact that Switzerland has managed it.
FCMs and REACH
You might think REACH could have helped with this problem. But one of the reasons that the Regulation isn’t mentioned in the main 2004 EU FCM law, is the latter hasn’t been reviewed since REACH entered into force in 2007.
The Commission is doing a backwards-looking evaluation of the FCM laws at the moment. And there are clear signals it is finally to start an examination of possible policy options to improve the system.
The lack of adequate regulation of chemicals in FCMs creates a range of problems, including a perverse situation where as pressure builds against plastic packaging (which does have an EU positive list), companies are moving to paper, card and other materials (which don’t have an EU positive list).
Similarly, the recent focus on the creation of a circular economy has exposed the fact that the EU has regulations on recycled plastic FCMs (not yet fully implemented), but nothing for recycled paper or card.
The lack of regulatory oversight in this area also means that surprises emerge, like the very high levels of PFAS chemicals in ‘clamshell’ takeaway packaging made of sugarcane, discovered by the Scottish-based NGO Fidra. Another area of concern is the profusion of ‘bamboo’ products made from a plastic/bamboo blend. The plastic melamine is often used and regulators have found many such products leach illegal levels of melamine and formaldehyde.
The gap in EU harmonised laws has also led to a number of national measures being adopted, such as Belgian and Dutch laws on coatings; German recommendations on paper and card; and Swiss rules on inks. This makes life more complex for companies. And while ‘best of sector’ companies may follow the toughest laws, the ‘worst of sector’ are unlikely to. Inadequate laws also lead to ineffective enforcement.
Principles and solutions
At Chemical Watch’s Food Contact Europe conference last month, I suggested looking at the drinking water Directive which is currently being revised and includes the creation of a positive list of chemicals for drinking water contact applications. ECHA is leading the process of assembling an initial list of chemicals, then reviewing each one in three prioritised groups. Could this be the answer for food contact materials?
Together with other environment and health NGOs, CHEM Trust has formulated ‘Five key principles’ for new EU laws on chemicals in FCMs. We have also organised workshops on the issue, particularly focusing on the interaction between REACH and FCM regulations.
Earlier this month, 33 international scientists published a consensus statement in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health, urging decision makers in government, industry, and civil society to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals that are present in FCMs. More than 160 NGOs around the world, including CHEM Trust, have signed up to a ‘call to action’ on this issue.
There are indications that the Commission’s upcoming ‘Farm to Fork’ strategy (a key component of the European Green Deal) will include a commitment to revise FCM legislation in 2021. CHEM Trust would very much welcome such a commitment because the laws in this area should have been updated years ago. It is vital, however, that this is done in an open and transparent way.
This article is reproduced with permission from chemicalwatch.com