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Chemicals in food packaging: EU Commission finally publishes the scope of their new study

A year ago we wrote about new research which found that hazardous chemicals are used in food packaging, and that chemicals in many food packaging materials are not properly regulated by the EU. We sent a letter to the then EU Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, and the reply from his office said that the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) was going to start an analysis of this problem. An outline of the terms of reference (TOR) of this analysis was finally released at the end of June 2015, following months of pushing from CHEM Trust, and the study is due to be completed by the beginning of 2016.

This is a very important study, which will hopefully provide the basis for closing the current regulatory gaps on chemicals in many food contact materials. CHEM Trust is surprised at how long it has taken for DG Santé (Health) to disclose the TOR for this analysis – and even more surprised at how long it is taking for the European Commission to put in place adequate regulations. It’s not a new problem, as we explain below.

Background

The EU’s main REACH chemicals legislation exempts consideration of the use of chemicals in food contact materials from chemical safety reports and from authorisation, as this is supposed to be addressed by an EU regulation “on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food”, which came into force in November 2004.

This regulation created a general safety requirement for packaging and other things that come into contact with food (e.g. tubes and other factory equipment):

“Materials and articles, … shall be manufactured in compliance with good manufacturing practice so that, under normal or foreseeable conditions of use, they do not transfer their constituents to food in quantities which could:

  1. (a)  endanger human health;”

This law also put in place a process for more comprehensive EU regulation of different food contact materials, including positive lists of chemicals that were permitted to be used, limits on impurities etc. In 2011 the EU finalised a new regulation on plastic materials, but there are still no EU-wide specific rules covering chemicals in paper, card, ink & adhesives. Individual countries will have some regulations, but these vary in terms of their scope and level of protection.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) held a workshop on chemicals in Food Contact packaging in November 2014, and their feature story on this workshop 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.”

What’s been happening over the past 12 months?

On 8th July 2014 we wrote to then Health Commissioner Borg to ask what DG Santé were doing about regulatory failures in this area; we’ve spent 10 months following up on the response we received:

  • The response from his office at the end of August 2014 stated that “The Commission’s Joint Research Centre [JRC] has recently agreed to analyse the situation in detail.”
  • We met an official from DG Santé in October 2014, and we asked for the TOR for the JRC analysis; we were told it hadn’t started.
  • When we wrote to Commissioner Andriukaitis in February 2015 we enquired regarding the JRC work; the response from DG Santé in March said the analysis was underway. We replied immediately and asked for the TOR, but heard nothing. We repeated this request in a meeting with one of the Commissioner’s Cabinet of advisors in April.
  • The Green MEP Bart Staes asked a Parliamentary question of Health Commissioner Andriukaitis on 19th May 2015

With no sign of the TOR for this important study, we emailed DG Santé again on 25th June, saying that we hoped we wouldn’t have to use the formal “access to documents” procedure to get this document. Within 5 hours we had received an email saying that the terms of reference were up on the web. The web page is dated the 24th June, but our suspicion is that it was put up on the 25th, after our email. (Update January 2016: DG Santé have re-organised their Food Contact web pages, the JRC study is now described on this page).

The TOR suggests that the analysis is very focussed on food contact materials and their supply chains, though we believe that there is a need for additional investigation of chemical hazards. As for timing, the page states “The study, which was launched in the latter part of 2014, is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of 2016“.

Where are we now?

In CHEM Trust’s view, DG Santé has not been treating this issue with the urgency it deserves. This is about chemicals that are in contact with our food – and there is no excuse not to be properly monitoring and controlling such chemicals.

We will continue to push for action in this area, and we’ll be publicising more examples of regulatory failings.

  • If you want more information on the problems with chemicals in packaging, the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives has just published a very informative article.
  • Food Packaging Forum has reported on this blog.