Concerns over chemicals in food packaging rise

Research by European consumer organisation BEUC shows that most consumers believe that the safety and use information provided on food packaging is either not understandable or insufficient. 

A survey of around 1,000 people in each of 11 EU countries for a new report – ‘Unwrapped: what consumers say about safe and sustainable food packaging’ – showed two in five consumers find it unclear which food containers and packaging are safe to use. Many find the information provided with food packaging difficult to understand (26%) or insufficient (36%).

One in five were found to reuse throwaway packaging for purposes that could increase food-related risks.These include reusing hard plastic containers to store hot food or drink (19%) and reusing take-away plastic containers for hot food-to-go (23%).

The research also found that half of consumers are using worn or damaged food containers and kitchenware. Age and wear can increase the risks of chemicals leaching into food.

More than 8,000 chemicals are used to produce and treat food packaging materials, BEUC noted, but “only a fraction of these chemicals are covered by specific EU rules, primarily in plastic materials. […] an overhaul of EU food packaging laws is urgent.” BEUC called for “rules which cover all food packaging so that these are safe under all foreseeable conditions of use, including reuse”. 

In July, McKinsey, a consultancy, warned companies that the net is closing in on chemicals used in packaging, and urged them to take a more “proactive approach”. 

report by the UN Environment Programme earlier this month detailed the “often-overlooked chemical-related issues of plastic pollution” and in particular the impacts on human health, the environment and circularity.

BEUC’s survey also showed that four in five consumers are also worried about the impact of food packaging on the environment. Almost nine in 10 support strict rules to prevent such impacts.

At EU level, a review of the EU’s food contact materials regulation is underway but the European Commission won’t publish its preferred options until next year. The delay means it is “highly unlikely” that reforms to the regulation will be finalised before the next European elections in 2024, reported Ends Europe in January.

In the UK, the situation is unclear. In May 2022 the Food Standards Agency called for retailers, manufacturers and suppliers to submit evidence on the safety of plastics which are recovered from the open environment and recycled for use as food contact material. Only four companies responded and the FSA is currently clarifying some of the evidence submitted. The FSA was approached for further comment.

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