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May 20, 2022updated 23 May 2022 8:03am

Scientists raise warning over chemicals in food packaging

A new database “contains hundreds of chemicals for which there is only very little known about their use and migration behaviour – but these data are critical for determining human health risks”.

By Simon Harvey

Scientists claim thousands of potentially harmful chemicals have been found in food packaging, processing equipment, reusable containers and kitchen utensils.

The findings of a study cited in Critical Reviews in Food, Science and Nutrition, a journal published by UK-based Taylor & Francis, revealed only one-third of more than 3,000 so-called food contact chemicals (FCCs) were previously known to be used in the manufacture of food contact materials (FCMs) such as packaging.

Some 60% of the studies were centred on plastics, with 1,976 different chemicals detected, according to the journal, which has compiled the FCCmigex database, a directory of the FCCs.

“All FCCs in the database were investigated either for their presence in food contact materials or for their propensity to transfer into food under real-world conditions, thus making human exposure to these chemicals highly probable,” the scientists wrote.

FCMs could be “a source of hazardous chemicals migrating into foodstuffs” and assessing the potential implications for human health “requires a comprehensive identification of the chemicals they contain”, according to the journal.

The Food Packaging Forum, a Switzerland-based non-profit organisation, noted in a follow-up report: “While the new FCCmigex database includes a great amount of information for some of the most well-studied FCCs, such as bisphenols, phthalates, and PFAS, it also contains hundreds of chemicals for which there is only very little known about their use and migration behaviour – but these data are critical for determining human health risks.”

PFAS – per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances – are a group of more than 4,700 industrial chemicals widely used in everyday products from food packaging, toiletries and non-stick cookware to clothing and carpets, according to Fidra, an environmental charity in Scotland.

Scientists added in the journal report: “In addition to intentionally used FCCs, FCAs also contain non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), such as impurities of starting substances, contaminants, reaction products and by-products, as well as degradation products. In most cases, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to detect and identify all NIAS in finished FCAs, as non-targeted analyses are not sufficiently comprehensive.”

The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) provided some background as it assesses the report.

A spokesperson informed Just Food in a statement: “Everything that could normally come into contact with food or drink must meet legal requirements on its chemical safety and suitability. None of the materials of the finished item can be dangerous to health, change food or drink in a detrimental way, or reduce its desirability by tainting it with an odd taste or smell, or alter its texture.

“There is a further requirement under the food contact plastics regulations for manufacturers to assess the safety of all potential migrants, which includes impurities, reaction, and breakdown products of the chemicals used”, or NIAS.

Meanwhile, industry body FoodDrinkEurope added: “Food safety is an absolute priority for food and drink companies. We will need to look into this report before commenting on it directly, but of course it is important.

“We must also remind consumers that EU food-safety regulations are some of the highest – and most effective – in the world and consumers can be assured by that. We will continue to work with EU authorities to maintain these high standards and to investigate and mitigate any risks that are identified.”

A spokesperson for Nestlé, while referring this publication to FoodDrinkEurope given the issue is an industry-wide topic, said the world’s largest food firm is aware of the report and is “reviewing the content in detail”.

Nestlé added: “The safety and quality of our products remain our highest priority, including ensuring that all our packaging meets strict quality and safety standards, while adhering to all applicable laws everywhere we operate.”

Food giant Unilever had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

The FSA added: “Some food contact materials have additional specific legal requirements, such as plastics and ceramics, which put controls on the chemicals permitted to be used to make them, or their migration into food, or both. The FSA recognises the challenges to prove the safety of these substances and will continues to work with industry towards developing analytical tools for the identification and assessment of such substances.”

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