30 Mar 2022

Written by

Dorota Napierska, Policy Officer on Toxic-Free Consumption & Production

How the EU chemicals strategy can help to make our food packaging toxic-free

Consumption & ProductionFood Contact Materials

Since publishing the European Green Deal in December 2019, the EU is in a modus operandi for a systemic change. The Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) adopted a year later, announced that it would help fight toxic chemicals and pollution that is detrimental to both human health and ecosystems. If it fulfills this promise – it will be remembered as the turning point in a history of European chemicals legislation and consumers’ protection. 

And it’s high time for that to happen – basic food contact legislation is 45 years old and has never been systematically evaluated. Reshaping of this legislation should be guided by a key principle of the CSS: to eliminate hazardous chemicals from products.

Why should manufacturers be forced to remove all toxic chemicals from food contact materials?

Almost everything we eat and drink comes in contact with food contact materials (FCM); from food packaging, beverage bottles, cutlery, straws, kitchen utensils to machinery used to manufacture food. They can be made of / contain different types of materials: metals, glass, ceramics, paper, wood, bamboo, and of course plastic – in all its many forms. 

And this is just a tip of the iceberg, as there are also thousands of chemicals in FCM that can potentially migrate into our food or drink, and eventually end up in our body. In Europe alone, some 8,000 chemicals can be used in food packaging and other FCM, and unfortunately many of these chemicals are toxic; some are disturbing the hormone system which might cause cancer (global rates of breast, endometrial, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers have been increasing over the past 40–50 years), lead to infertility (from 1973 to 2011, the total sperm count of men in Western countries dropped by 59%), some impair development (increasing risks for child learning, attention, and behavioral problems, with the costs related to neurodevelopmental disease and IQ loss reaching EUR 157 billion per annum) and impact our nervous and immune systems (multiplying up to 4 times the likelihood of children falling ill). Equally worrying is that for many of the chemicals in FCM, we simply lack a safety assessment.

Indeed, one of the most common ways Europeans are exposed to harmful chemicals is through food and beverage, and the products we use to package, store and cook food. Ironically, EU rules on FCM chemicals are less protective than other EU chemical regulations. Some known toxic chemicals (recognized as substances of very high concern) including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates (like DEHP), are restricted from other applications but still allowed for food contact uses. Many food and drink producers are not thinking twice about spicing up products with reprotoxic DEHP, immunotoxic BPA, increasing cholesterol PFAS, and other toxic chemicals. 

Safe, or not safe – that is the question

EU rules state that any food contact material should not release chemicals into the food or drink in quantities that could harm our health. Unfortunately, the current way we assess how much of a chemical is safe or harmful to our health leaves much room for improvement. We know for example that some chemicals, like endocrine disruptors, have very low effect thresholds which cannot be measured in practice. Also, the current process of assessing the safety of any chemical takes many years of looking for robust scientific evidence, costs society a lot of money, and often results in a restriction that is simply too late. As an example, for  many years, we were told that it is safe to consume up to 4 micrograms of BPA per kilogram of our body per day. But in December last year, experts established that this safe dose must be reduced by 100,000-fold and that most people are exposed to far more BPA than allowed under the proposed limit, and there is a health concern from dietary exposure for all age groups.

And finally, chemicals migrating from food contact articles are assessed for their safety on a substance-by-substance basis. However, in real life, we are exposed to a complex cocktail of chemicals: dozens if not hundreds of known and suspected harmful chemicals migrating from food contact articles and other sources, such as personal care products, textiles, cleaning products, furniture, to name a few. Who does not know an old saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Well, a “little” mixture of hazardous chemicals a day can do just the opposite.

Without any doubt, the current rules are not as robust as they should be.

Chemicals in the spotlight

And this is where the actions planned under chemicals strategy (with 2022 as indicative timing) should help and provide the right direction for reshaping the Food Contact Legislation:

  • Extend the generic approach to risk management to ensure that consumer products do not contain chemicals that cause cancers, gene mutations, affect the reproductive or the endocrine system, or are persistent and bioaccumulative and toxic. 

The ‘generic approach to risk management’ approach is a fundamental departure from the current FCM rules, i.e. establishing limits for how much of a substance is allowed to migrate into food. Generic risk assessment, also called the hazard-based approach, targets chemicals for regulatory action based on intrinsic hazard properties – regardless of where and how they will be used. The goal is to remove most hazardous chemicals from consumer products (no exposure = no risk). 

  • Introduce or reinforce provisions to take account of the combination effects of chemicals, including in food contact materials.

Decades of research have demonstrated that negative impacts can be observed where the individual chemicals in the mixture are present at or below the level considered safe. It’s time to ensure proper protection from our real-life exposure to a large number of different chemicals.

  • Update information requirements to allow the identification of endocrine disruptors in relevant legislation, including in food contact materials.

A lack of proper EDCs regulation is a large-scale dangerous experiment with our hormones, especially the developing brains and reproductive systems of our children. A safer and preventive approach to address endocrine disruptors is a must.

Moreover, the CSS will support a group assessment of chemicals with similar hazards. This approach will simplify and speed up regulatory processes and, importantly, help to tackle regrettable substitution (i.e. replacing one harmful chemical with similar, potentially toxic, alternatives).

From a public health perspective, the CSS should minimise the presence of hazardous chemicals in all consumer products through introducing legal requirements in the initiatives on sustainable products, and guide the achievement of clean material cycles through appropriate provisions in legislation such as the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. 

What is now critically important, is how things will be put into practice – how those actions are implemented and how FCM legislation will improve over the coming years. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to misslet’s make our food packaging toxic-free!