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What Hazardous Chemicals Are Hiding in Your Commercial Food Packaging?

Michael Wilson | Feb 18, 2016

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about food safety. Most of it revolves around sanitation, pesticides, and GMOs. However, there’s another aspect to food safety that doesn’t ...

commercial-food-packaging-hazardous-chemicalsThere’s been a lot of buzz lately about food safety. Most of it revolves around sanitation, pesticides, and GMOs. However, there’s another aspect to food safety that doesn’t always attract as much attention: commercial food packaging. But the FDA’s recent decision to ban three compounds used in food packaging has sparked increased interest in how the materials used in packaging affects the food inside.

What is an FCS?

Food contact substances, or FCS, include any packaging materials that come into contact with the food but aren’t intended to change or alter it in any way (in which case they would be additives, rather than FCS). Common FCS used in commercial food packaging include adhesives, coatings, plastic, paper, colorants, antimicrobials, and antioxidants.

For an example, let’s consider meat packaging. If the plastic film that wraps around the meat is composed of multiple layers, all of the layers have to be safe for food contact. So does the ink used on any printed labels as well as all of the materials in the Styrofoam tray and that little sheet of plastic the meat sits on. The same is true for those stickers you see on produce – everything used in making that sticker has to be food-safe.

Why is the FDA Involved?

The FDA’s role is to make sure that materials used in FCS don’t transfer harmful substances to the food itself. FCS safety ratings are based on both the compound involved and how much people are likely to ingest – in other words, how much of a particular compound in commercial food packaging will wind up on the food itself? It’s a complicated process because the results can vary based on the type of food the packaging is used on: Some foods are more likely to absorb compounds from packaging than others. The approval process includes research, testing, and computer modeling. However, there’s rarely definitive proof as to a product’s safety (or lack thereof). The FDA rules based on “reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists” that a compound is safe.

What Are the Risks From Compounds Found in FCS?

A number of the compounds are believed to have carcinogens – in other words, there is some evidence that they may cause cancer. Some cause fertility problems while others are an endocrine disruptor, which means they can affect the body’s ability to produce and regulate hormones. Others accumulate over time, finally reaching toxic levels.

Which Substances Did the FDA Ban?

The FDA’s most recent ruling, issued on January 4th, bans the use of three perfluorinated compounds (PFC) in commercial food packaging because they’re structurally similar to compounds that are known to be toxic. All three substances are grease-proofing agents like those used in pizza boxes and bags of microwave popcorn. Following a petition submitted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the FDA reviewed the evidence and determined that there was no longer a “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Although U.S. companies stopped using the PFCs in 2011, the FDA wanted to address imported food packaging that could contain them.

However, the FDA doesn’t always issue complete bans. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to manufacture plastic bottles, has been an area of concern for several years because BPA is an endocrine disruptor and consumers were worried about the substance’s ability to migrate to food and beverages. The FDA declined to issue a full ban on BPAs, but they did ban their use in products intended for infants and young children, such as bottles and sippy cups.

The safety of commercial food packaging is a growing area of interest throughout the global economy. You can expect more standardization of regulations as various nations work to improve safety without unduly inhibiting global trade. For now, it’s important to focus on your entire supply chain, from the vendors who supply the raw materials to those that produce your packaging. How much do you know about the chemicals used in your food packaging?

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