The new lab, designed to test food contact materials, is based at the European Commission'sjoint research centre in Ispra, Italy. For food processors, the centre will serve as a resource theycan refer to when uncertain about the safety of specific packaging chemicals, such as those used ininks or for making the material.
EU legislation requires that all materials that come into contact with food comply with health standards so that safe food remains safe.
The new EU reference laboratory will set standards for testing practices for food contactmaterials across the EU. It will also serve as a point of reference for issues relating to the enforcement oflegislation on food contact materials. This will be achieved through a network of national referencelaboratories set up by each member country.
It will develop methods, reference substances, and training procedures to ensure consistenttesting practices are done nationally to ensure the best possible implementation of EU legislation,said the science and research commissioner, Janez Potoènik.
Articles that come into contact with food also includes kitchen appliances, cutlery and crockeryused industrially.
"There are of course a wide variety of types of food that are packed, processed and in some cases heatedin these materials," Potoènik said. "The safety of the food therefore requires on adequatestandards throughout the industrial chain, including producers of chemicals and materials, converters, packers and the food and catering industry."
The creation of the reference lab and the network of national reference laboratories is required by EU legislation to control feed and food.The Joint Research Centre in Italy has about ten years' experience of analysis of food contact materials. It has established a database with the chemical andphysical characterisation of more than 400 substances used in the production of food contact material, as well as 350 methods for their analysis.
Some specific examples include studies on the release of substances from materials used to coat foodcans. The studies led to a change in legislation after levels were shown to be too high.
Another study on the safety aspects of recycled food contact materials led to guidelines for the safe recycling ofmaterials.
Public and regulatory scrutiny became focused on packaging chemicals last November after Italy'sregulators confiscated millions of litres of Nestlé baby milk due to the discovery that a printingchemical from a Tetra Pak package had migrated into the product.
Nestlé subsequently was forced by court order in Italy to make a recall of about two millionlitres of its Nidina and Latte Mio brands, even thought the EU's food agency found at the chemicalposed no danger to human health at the levels found in the products.
The recall was extended to France, Spain and Portugal. Dutch group Numico was also involved inrecalling some of its products. The crisis subsequently exposed a loophole in food law, as there wasno EU-wide regulation setting limits on benign contact materials.
The issue over ITX also highlighted the uncertainty surrounding current legislation in the EUover the food industry's use of packaging chemicals, a problem that is meant to be fixed under aproposed directive on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals(Reach), which is due to be approved by the bloc's parliament by the end of this year.
Currently the EU relies on a negative list to regulate the use of chemicals. This means anychemical not on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) blacklist can normally be used forpackaging food.
Current EU regulation requires that all food packaging materials shall be manufactured incompliance with what the law defines as "good manufacturing practice" (GMP). Proposed EUlegislation made after the Nestlé recall would define the manufacturing practices the bloc'sprocessors would have to take in ensuring that packaging materials do not migrate into foods.
In October a new law came into force, requiring processors to have a traceability system in placefor packaging materials.
The new requirement is a provision of EC Regulation 1935/2004, which deals with materials andarticles that may come into contact with foods. The law was adopted by the bloc last year to updatea previous EU directive on food contact materials.
The regulation entered into force on 3 December 2004, except for Article 17 on traceability,which enters into force on 27 October. The later implementation date was given to provide time forbusinesses to put traceability systems in place.
Traceability requires that processors must be able to provide records to regulators to allow themto follow a material or article through all stages of manufacture, processing and distribution. Therecords should allow the identification of businesses from which and to which packaging and otherfood contact materials originate from.
The regulation covers materials such as rubbers, ceramics, plastics, paper, glass, metals, inks,textiles, waxes, cork and wood.