Almost everything we eat has touched one or more food contact material (FCM), from food packaging and factory equipment to kitchen utensils.
EU rules on FCMs state that they should be ‘sufficiently inert’ so that their constituents neither adversely affect consumer health nor influence the quality of the food.
However, Europe’s FMC framework has faced prolonged criticism from health campaigners and other NGOs.
FCMs, 'hazardous chemicals' and public health: 'This needs to be urgently addressed'
A recent study from the Zero Waste Europe Network found ‘hazardous chemicals associated with food packaging’ can be detected in ‘high quantities’ in the human body.
The study, published last month, tested urine samples for the presence of chemicals commonly used in single-use plastic food packaging, including phthalates and phenols. Of the 28 chemicals analysed, an average of 20.5 chemicals were found in the samples (with a range from 18 to 23 chemicals found).
The testing was undertaken by Zero Waste Europe and five of its members – Ecologists without Borders, Rezero, Za Zemiata, ZERO and Zero Waste Latvija. Participants were from Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain.
“This research adds to a growing body of scientific literature that proves the exposure of consumers to hazardous chemicals through single use food packaging, notably plastic, and links this exposure to a number of diseases,” Rosa Garcia, director at Rezero, said, pointing to associations with cancer and cardiovascular diseases as well as reproductive and immune issues.
“Public health has been inadequately protected from these toxic chemicals for too long. We cannot continue to keep citizens in the dark on the impacts of what they buy and consume. This needs to be urgently addressed by decision makers and packaging producers.”
Zero Waste Europe is not alone in their calls for urgent regulatory action.
According to CHEM Trust, a charity based out of the UK and Germany, the lobby group has been pointing out that the EU’s FCM laws are ‘outdated and ineffective in protecting people and the environment’ since 2014.
CHEM Trust has been working alongside a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental NGOs – including Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) - to advocate for a new legal framework.
This, they propose, should be based on ‘five key principles’ including a ‘high’ level of human health protections, ‘thorough assessment’ of chemicals in materials, effective enforcement, circular economy based on non-toxic material cycles, and transparency.
‘Most harmful’ substances to be banned
FCMs are increasingly on the agenda of European regulators, having been given fresh impetus by the EC's new Chemical’s Strategy for Sustainability targeting a toxic-free environment.
Indeed, at a recent meeting of the Environment Council, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius highlighted problems with the current FCM laws using the example of Bisphenol A, a well-known endocrine disrupting chemical, which is allowed in FCM but banned in babies’ bottles and thermal paper.
Earlier this year the European Commission committed to proposing a revision of EU legislation on food contact materials by the end of 2022. This process has now launched in earnest with the publication of an Inception Impact Assessment (IIA) for consultation.
According to the document, the aim is to ‘modernise’ EU FCM food safety laws to ensure a ‘high level’ of public health protection; reduce the presence and use of hazardous chemicals; support innovation and sustainability through reusable and recyclable solutions; and take account of the ‘latest science and technology’.
The IIA sets out two options to revise the FCM legislation. The first would leverage the current regulatory framework as a cornerstone, while the second option would be to develop a new regulatory framework.
It also proposes that the ‘most harmful’ chemicals – or ‘tier 1 substances’ - including endocrine disrupting chemicals, those that are carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic (CMRs), and bioaccumulative and toxic substances, will not be permitted in FCM.
According to CHEM Trust, this ‘generic risk assessment’ approach is a fundamental departure from the current FCM rules. At the moment, public authorities generally establish limits for how much of a substance is allowed to migrate into food.
Zero Waste Europe agreed that ‘fundamental reform’ is the only acceptable solution.
“This long awaited and largely called for revision is an opportunity that must not be wasted. Adjustments at the margin to the current legislation will not do the trick; if the EU wants to effectively protect human health, while at the same time building sustainable food systems and a toxic-free circular economy, it needs to opt for a fundamental reform,” added Justine Maillot, consumption and production campaigner at Zero Waste Europe.
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.
“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,” Stefan Scheuer, chief EU policy advocate at CHEM Trust said.
“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.”