Following on from a very critical report by the European Parliament, the European Commission has finally announced that it will review the laws regulating the chemicals allowed in food contact materials such as packaging. They have also published a detailed study showing the extent of the problems caused by the lack of adequate EU rules covering food contact materials (FCM) such as paper and card, and the inks used to print on them.
Meanwhile, researchers have found that chemicals designated as having properties of very high concern by the EU’s main chemicals law REACH are still in use in food contact materials. CHEM Trust has previously organised a workshop examining the lack of co-ordination between REACH and EU food contact laws.
European Commission promises to review the rules
The current European framework regulation for FCMs includes a general safety requirement regarding human health, but specific processes to approve chemical use at EU level are only in place for a few materials, including plastic packaging. There are no harmonised, EU level, rules for chemicals in commonly used materials such as paper and board, inks, coatings and adhesives, only national laws of varying strictness.
In December 2016, an official from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG Santé) finally announced that the Commission was going to review the regulations on chemicals in food contact materials. More details emerged from a meeting of the EU Commission’s Technical Expert Group for food contact materials at the end of January, with two key processes proposed:
- An evaluation of the current regulatory system, to see if it is effective, sustainable and adequate. This could potentially lead to further harmonisation of EU laws on chemicals in food contact materials.
- A new harmonised measure on chemicals in printed food contact materials, with the aim of the EU adopting this law in 2018. The presentation by Commission staff suggested that this could involve more than 5000 substances.
Another meeting of the European Food Safety Authority, in February, discussed national rules on chemicals in food contact coatings (like food can linings), another area where there is no EU harmonised regulation.
A major study by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre
As part of the Commission’s evaluation of the current laws, a detailed report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, released in January, reveals the many shortcomings of regulations across the EU concerning non-harmonised FCMs.
Problems identified included: a lack of common protocols for risk assessment, the divergence between the chemicals approved in different countries, the lack of agreed standards and testing methods, and inadequate communication in supply chains. These problems present a risk to people’s health and also increase the burden on companies, who must pay the cost of multiple testing and expertise to understand the diverse regulations (which are usually written in the language of the country concerned).
Chemicals of very high concern in food contact materials
A recent study by Food Packaging Forum points out another issue – the lack of coordination between the EU’s main chemicals law REACH and the EU laws on chemicals in food contact materials. REACH includes a process to identify chemicals with properties of very high concern (SVHC), and then to encourage such chemicals to be phased out and replaced with safer alternatives.
However, the study found that 10 SVHCs were authorised for use in food contact materials or listed in inventories of substances used. Five of these SVHCs – four phthalates (DiBP, DBP, BBP, and DEHP), and one primary aromatic amine (MDA) – have been shown to be able to migrate into food or food simulants in food contact materials. These chemicals have been identified as SVHCs due to toxicity for reproduction or carcinogenic properties.
The authors of the study also concluded:
“A part of the substances used in non-plastic FCMs have been risk assessed and are nationally regulated, others lack even basic data regarding their toxicology and exposure. Thus, it seems consistent to prohibit the use of any SVHC that has not been specifically risk assessed for its application in FCMs because it seems impossible that these SVHCs can fulfil the requirements of Article 3 of the FCM Framework Regulation [i.e. the requirement to ensure that human health is not endangered].”
Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:
“CHEM Trust welcomes DG Health’s long overdue initiative to review the laws controlling the use of chemicals in food contact materials such as packaging.
The current regulatory system is completely inadequate, as we have been pointing out for nearly three years. It is not acceptable that substances of very high concern, such as those that are carcinogenic or toxic for reproduction, are still used in materials in contact with food. The system also doesn’t work for businesses, creating a complex situation, lacking in both clarity and protection.
The European Commission needs to protect the health of EU citizens – and create a workable system for EU businesses. It’s time for real action, not further delay. “
For more details on the problems of this regulatory system, and CHEM Trust’s views on the solutions, see our briefing “Chemicals in food contact materials: A gap in the internal market, a failure in public protection“.
CHEM Trust first highlighted this issue in a letter to former EU Health Commission Tonio Borg in July 2014.
Update, 2nd May 2017
- This blog has been covered by the Food Packaging Forum.