Consumers are concerned about the safety of food packaging materials.
According to Eurobarometer data, 86% of consumers are either worried or very worried about chemicals used in food packaging, with four in five voicing concerns about chemicals in everyday products.
The European Consumers Organization (BEUC) challenges current EU food packaging legislation. Intended to “protect” the safety and interests of consumers, BEUC claims that “none is reached”.
“In fact, the current regulatory regime is what I will call a regulatory relic”, said Pelle Moos of the Safety and Health division of BEUC, who calls for change.
“The current situation is untenable”, he said at a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event. “EU reform is urgently needed.
PFAS and BPA found in food and drink
Food packaging safety surveys conducted in recent years confirm BEUC’s position, suggested Moos.
In 2017, for example, the Danish Consumers Council THINK Chemicals conducted a survey on fast food packaging with consumer organizations in Belgium, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
The overall results revealed that almost a third of the 65 fast food packages tested contained high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS).
Defined as fluorinated substances, PFAS are known to bioaccumulate in the environment, Moos explained, adding that some are suspected of causing or promoting cancer and being endocrine disruptors.
“We know that these substances, when used to produce food packaging, can migrate into food and therefore create a problem for human health”, said Moos. “We also know that scientists in the Madrid Declaration called for limiting the production and use of PFAS globally.”
The health and safety expert continued: “The use of PFAS in paper and cardboard food packaging is (mostly) unregulated in Europe. “
In Norway, reusable plastic bottles were found to leach phthalates, bisphenols, lead and flame retardants into their contents.
A 2018 test by the Norwegian Consumers Council found these toxic chemicals in the contents of Sanrio’s Hello Kitty brand bottles. The bottles were on sale at Toys R Us.
“Worryingly, it is the bottles sold to children that performed the worst in the tests” moos lamented.
“All of these bottles were legal, in the sense that the level of migration… was below the legal limit, but the question is, what does this mean for our overall exposure to hazardous chemicals? “
Greenwashing with SUP alternatives
BEUC also raised concerns that the response of packaging manufacturers to the recently imposed ban on single-use plastics – which went into effect on July 3, 2021 – is increasing the use of materials. not regulated.
In an effort to eliminate single-use plastics from their offerings, business operators are turning to potentially dangerous alternatives, Moos suggested. These can be made from bamboo, paper, “bagasse” (the waste of sugar cane) or other plant-based materials.
Consumer organizations in Italy, Denmark, Spain and France have investigated the presence of chemicals of concern in 57 different single-use items in contact with food, such as bowls, plates and straws. Chemicals of concern – including PFAS, chloropropanes and pesticides – were detected above recommended limits in 53% of samples. “Not above the legal limit” Stressed Moos, “Because there is no legislation in place. But above the limit recommended, for example, by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).
Several samples contained more than one of the chemicals analyzed. And in 12 other samples, the analyzes detected either pesticide residues or fluorinated compounds and chloropropanols close to the recommended limits.
Some pesticides found are either banned in the EU, known to be carcinogenic, or an endocrine disruptor.
Those same samples have also been found to mislead consumers with unfounded green claims, the safety expert continued.
“It is clear that if they contain a ‘chemical forever’ [PFAS] which is not known to decompose when released to the environment … there is a misleading claim.
“So basically what we see with these examples is that we are replacing a persistent plastic pollutant with a forever persistent chemical pollutant.”
What is the solution ?
What type of reform is BEUC looking for? The consumer organization offers five suggestions to the European Commission.
To begin with, BEUC urges regulators to reduce food contamination through stricter legislation. “We must reduce the overall level of contamination in Europe”, Moos pointed out. Food contact materials are the “most important and least controlled” source of food contamination, and the Commission must reduce overall migration limits, we were told.
“We must not forget that the overall limit for the migration of materials in contact with food packaging is 100 times greater than what we have established, for example, for pesticide residues. It is also at least twice as high as what is achieved in other regions, such as Japan. ”
The consumer organization also challenges the Commission to establish a ‘preventive approach’. This would mean that all carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic chemicals, as well as endocrine disruptors, would be phased out of food packaging – unless their use is essential for society.
Applying the “no data, no market” principle is another recommendation from BEUC. This principle already exists in European chemicals legislation and would mean that operators are required to document the safety of mixtures migrating from articles in contact with food. These reports would then be verified by the Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Member States.
The consumer organization also calls for the establishment of effective enforcement: Member States should essentially ‘increase considerably’ by allocating more resources to control what is on the market, we were told.
“Of course we know there is a resource problem, so what the Commission should do is… see if there is a way to extend the current fee-based enforcement mechanism that is in the process. official regulations on controls to also cover materials in contact with food, ” said Moos, “To allow Member States to recover costs”.
And finally, the Commission must encourage sustainable alternatives to conventional plastic through regulation. “The best way to do this is to make sure there are rules for all of these alternative materials, to make sure they don’t contain chemicals that endanger human health and the environment. .
“It’s the best way to make sure consumers trust these materials and are ready to buy them in the first place.”