A COMPLEX array of packaging requirements have led to high volumes of substandard packaging entering Europe, say manufacturers. Foodservice and grocery firms therefore need to be alert to the potential health and environmental risks.
An alien invasion is reportedly taking place at Europe’s borders and it’s threatening to damage the continent’s packaging sector, distorting usage figures, contaminating recycling streams and, in some cases, endangering the public. Substandard packaging could be coming to a takeaway coffee near you.
“In Europe, we rightly expect our packaging to be manufactured to the highest levels of safety and quality, and companies are proud to deliver on that expectation,” says Tony Waters of Solo Europe, the outgoing president of Pack2Go Europe, which represents a number of leading foodservice packaging manufacturers. “Double standards are being applied because national market surveillance organisations and customs services don’t adequately check imports from outside the EU.”
A survey of Pack2Go’s members in November showed that 87% of respondents reported experiencing loss in market share in the past that could be directly attributed to cheaper imports – products that may not be meeting the EU’s standards. Some 73% said they were currently suffering from such unfair competition. More worrying, perhaps, is that nearly 60% felt that those using the packaging – catering firms, snack food companies and the like – are not aware that the products they buy from distributors do not conform to EU requirements.
“It’s time for foodservice packaging users to start asking questions about the quality of imported products and demanding serious answers from importers and distributors,” says Jan Schürman of SwissPrimePack, Waters’s successor at Pack2Go. “Recent reports out of China show that locally manufactured packaging is not even meeting Chinese rules. It’s naive to think they are meeting ours when nobody ever checks.”
Is the situation as bleak as Pack2Go suggests? How damaging is the influx of substandard packaging? Are foodservice companies to blame for not checking, or is there a need for enhanced border control and checks?
EU legislation requires that certain materials and “articles which are intended to come into contact with food” must meet specific requirements. Regulation 1935/2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food is the framework regulation. Article 3 sets out the general principle that materials and articles must be manufactured in compliance with good practice so that under normal or foreseeable conditions of use, they do not transfer their constituents into food in a harmful way.
The other key regulation is 2023/2006, which gives further detail on what good manufacturing practice means.
Each member state has adopted these within its own laws. These are not new regulations – in place nine and seven years respectively. However, there are some surprisingly large discrepancies between them.
This makes for a fiercely complicated landscape, as Richard Inns from packaging experts the PEC Partnership explains: “The problem lies with countries whose legislation either is not clear or where it is only applied indirectly to the packaging. This latter point is a technicality, but an important one.
“In some countries you can only obtain legislative approval for a package in combination with a very specific product; not the packaging on its own for a specified product type [fatty foods for example] as in the EU.
“These two factors together can make it very difficult for an importer of packaging to determine whether it is in line with EU or national legislation,” he adds.
Inns has compiled a list of all legislation relating to food contact packaging from 67 countries. In July last year he was invited to present his findings to MPs from the all-party parliamentary group on packaging. His research clearly shows why packaging companies in the EU are getting nervous. One table in the presentation compares food contact requirements or processes in paper-based packaging products across the world versus the UK. China, for example, has a similar legislative infrastructure to Europe, but for four main requirements – heavy metals, migration test, optical brightness and positive list – the test application refers to the “food contact layer only”. In other words, the printed side of the packaging might be excluded – and that’s where a large part of the contamination risk can occur.
Cross-border confusion will have been present ever since companies starting importing packaging from outside the EU. Alarm bells have only now begun ringing because the volume of imports has increased so rapidly. Lorenzo Angelucci is MD of Seda UK, part of the Seda International Packaging Group, which produces paper cups, cartons and a plastic packaging for some of the biggest food companies in the world including Kraft, McDonald’s and Nestlé.
He explains: “We hear constantly about environmental issues, packaging waste reduction, the Courtauld agreement, carbon footprints for packaging and so on. But currently, if a UK distributor wants to buy a container of cheap paper-based packaging products from China, which are made from unknown origin recycled fibres or printed with benzene, they can be on the streets of UK cities in just three weeks and nobody can check or be aware of it.”
Angelucci says there has been a “progressive and significant” expansion of non-European packaging in the past five years in Europe – and the UK in particular. This comes mainly from the Far East and the US. The products tend to be comparable in range, but they are generally cheaper and made from lower-grade material and of lower quality. “In some instances we came across post-consumer recycled fibres and strong-smelling solvent-based print.”
In the past, issues such as this have been raised directly with the foodservice operator or distributor, but such is the scale of the problem that Europe’s packaging companies have decided to play hardball: they want regular testing of imported packaging.
“We want the fundamental differences on what is classed as food approved in the UK and EU versus other countries to be considered by the authorities as a potential risk in terms of food contact approval of non-EU packaging,” says Angelucci. “We also want a statistical percentage of non-EU imported packaging to be sent to a lab for analysis to ensure they comply with UK legislation on an ongoing basis.”
In Germany this is already happening – there are proposed border checks for adherence to proposed protocols on mineral oil contamination. Even in China, authorities have recently banned products from 43 disposable cup producers. Angelucci believes there should be, at the very least, aligned legislation and action between the UK, Italy, France and Germany, including border checks on non-EU imports.
The Foodservice Packaging Association is lending its weight to the lobbying efforts; the issue was debated at the group’s recent environment seminar. Neil Whittall is the FPA chairman: “We are pleased to see that this matter is being raised once again,” he says.
“The quality of products and materials is paramount, and we like many other organisations have long questioned the validity of claims made by some suppliers. As a trade body we will be increasing our activity in this area to make sure that we have a level playing field, but more importantly protect the consumer from more unscrupulous suppliers.”
Politically, little progress has been made. The issue has been discussed with the UK Product Safety Focus Group, which is part of Trading Standards. Meanwhile, Carol Garrett, principal officer at Suffolk Trading Standards and the UK point of contact for border control of non-food products, has “noted the concerns” but cannot make any promises regarding changes.
More recently, the parliamentary under- secretary for Wales, Baroness Randerson, wrote to Angelucci. She explained that responsibility for investigation lies with Trading Standards and, in turn, the Food Standards Agency.
The letter reads: “Should there be a particular problem which becomes evident from intelligence sources, there are a number of possible actions open to the authorities. These include specific targeted sampling of that type of import, either on a national or European scale. However, such actions have to be both effective and proportionate, and thus there is a system of prioritisation with regards to any proposals.”
She cites the example of excessive levels of optical brightening agents that were suspected to be present in disposable paper cups from the Far East. Several months of investigations ensued, resulting in a “watching brief” rather than targeted sampling at ports.
Nicky Strong, a consultant at the law firm Bond Dickinson, says there is a history of substandard imports to the EU, particularly from China. However, this more often relates to electrical goods and she is “not aware of any significant food packaging issues” recently.
Joanna Griffiths, a packaging technology manager at BRC Global Standards, is also unsure about the extent of the issue. “The specification of packaging materials within Europe may be over and above what is specified when Asian manufacturers are asked for a product to meet the same requirements,” she explains.
“Substandard packaging is the issue rather than where it comes from. And let’s be clear: non-European companies are just as legitimate as European packaging companies – they merely operate in a different geography with different legal requirements.
“The key is to ensure that packaging is properly specified whatever its use and wherever its origin, and an appropriate procedure is in place to ensure that the customer gets what the customer wants.”
It’s no secret that budget restrictions on regulatory authorities can play into the hands of those trying to bend the law to make a quick buck. But the Pack2Go alliance remains insistent that the confusion surrounding imported packaging and the corresponding legislation presents a risk to health and must be prioritised. Schürmann notes that foodservice companies using the packaging would be horrified if they found out that their customers might be at risk. Small businesses, in particular, are beholden to their packaging distributor for advice.
“It’s all very well to keep piling regulatory demands onto packaging made in Europe but if we don’t demand the same of imports then consumers are not protected,” he says.
“It’s just too easy for third-country producers to take shortcuts and get away with it. But this isn’t just a customs issue. Buyers must engage with their suppliers to ensure the packaging they are using meets the relevant standards. Strong encourages those who have concerns to raise them with the Food Standards Agency.
In a nod towards the wider issues in the food chain raised by the horse meat scandal, she concludes: “The complexity of the food supply chain makes it difficult to quickly identify and deal with potential and actual food fraud issues.
“Perhaps the message for food businesses is to review their relationships with suppliers to establish whether there are any issues with the packaging being supplied and to bear in mind that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”