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Food Contact Materials: Worldwide awareness of the dangers on the rise, standards and provisions inconsistent and incomprehensible

The International "Residues of Food Contact Materials (FCM)" Conference, hosted in Cologne by Akademie Fresenius on 20 and 21 June 2018, focussed on new food packaging materials as well as new pesticide residue analysis techniques and the latest monitoring and legislative initiatives within Europe.

As the discussion on mineral oil residues which can also enter food through recycled paper continues, the experts specifically discussed options for preventing mineral oil entry through the use of activated carbon barriers at this Fresenius conference. In addition, they also examined alternatives to polyfluorinated compounds in food packaging and looked into the question of whether and in what form bioassays could replace the toxicity tests currently required by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

Migration from mineral oil and other contaminants from recycled cardboard into foodstuffs: manufacturers and the food industry need consistent criteria

Koni Grob of the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zurich took stock of the efforts to reduce the migration of contaminants from packaging paper / cardboard into foodstuffs to a tolerable level. Hardly anyone would want to buy food packaged in a piece of newspaper today, but recycled paper and cardboard are not really cleaner. The problem has long been known, but solutions are slow. Recycling is welcome because of sustainability, but requires action to reduce food contamination. Inner bags with a barrier layer may be one such measure, as well as interior coatings of boxes with a barrier or the addition of activated carbon to the carton, which holds back the contaminants inside the carton.

As a condition for a breakthrough, Koni Grob sees a consistent criterion for assessing the effectiveness of measures: "Science and technology can not completely avoid migration. All the more, the producers need to know which solution can be considered sufficient and the purchaser of food packaging material needs data to assess whether an offered material is suitable for its application. "The main problem in defining a minimum effectiveness is that the critical contaminants are unknown and also variable. The requirements should therefore be based on conservative estimates, explains Grob.

Internal bags with sufficient barriers are available on the market and are also widely used. More problematic are boxes without inner bag and with a barrier coating on the inner surface. Some of these barriers are not sufficiently dense. In addition and in the case of packaging closures, parts of the external closure surfaces protrude into the interior of the packaging, which may possibly cause unacceptable transitions on their own. Grob regrets the low interest of the food industry in the corresponding clarifications. On the other hand, recycled cardboard with built-in activated carbon is promising: The analyses so far show a good retention capacity. Design and packaging constuction do not need to be changed in this case. For a final assessment, further clarifications are planned.

Migration from kitchen utensils made of polyamide

Not only do contaminants migrate into food from packaging materials but also from kitchen utensils made of polyamide, such as cooking spoons and spatulas. In his presentation, food chemist Rüdiger Helling from the Saxon Ministry of Consumer Affairs dealt with just this danger. He strongly criticised the past practice of the industry. For ten years, neither the public nor the supervisory authorities have had a risk assessment on the polyamide materials available or the legal obligation to do so. This deficiency contradicted EC Regulation No. 1935/2004 which governs the use of materials and articles which come into contact with food. Helling called on manufacturers who make kitchen accessories from polyamide to optimise their products continually to reduce migration and polyamide components. They should also inform consumers with permanently attached instructions for safe use.

Testing for the migration of endocrine substances from packaging materials: 30 percent are endocrine-active

For the past roughly twenty years, the scientific sector has been discussing the occurrence of endocrine-active substances that have harmful effects (“endocrine disruptors”). Manfred Tacker from the University of Applied Sciences in Vienna reported on different tests designed to determine the occurrence of endocrine-active substances in food packaging materials. Around 70 percent of the packaging examined was found not to be endocrine-active. According to Tacker, in the case of the 30 percent of the packaging materials that the tests showed to be endocrine-active, the extent of this activity generally proved to be lower than was previously found in mineral water. Furthermore, tests on PET bottles had also shown that the activity that had been determined in mineral water did not originate from PET bottles. Examination of the cells only proved that the active substance had bonded to the hormone receptor. Tacker emphasised that it was not possible to come to any direct conclusions about activity within the organism.

Denmark: Industry and the authorities share a common interest

The international Fresenius conference also took a look beyond the German and European borders. Mette Holm of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration provided a practical field report on how the DVFA conducted their checks and inspections at food contact material manufacturing companies. This year, there is a very strong focus on the use of food contact materials in Denmark. 1000 inspections are being carried out specifically in connection with this topic. As Mette Holm reported, the Danish industry was being very open about these inspections. According to Holm, the companies wanted to accept responsibility. However, they would also like to see regulations that were less complicated and a more harmonised and specific EU legislation. In this respect, they were in total agreement with the authorities, Mette Holm admitted with a smile.

China sensitised for the risks posed by food contact materials

In China, awareness for the need for the strict control of food contact materials has also increased. Marco Zhong, Director of the National Reference Laboratory for Food Contact Materials in Guangzhou, observed that the contamination of food through contact materials was a subject that had been neglected in China for a very long time. However, “remarkable progress” had been made in the meantime. In the future, a range of additional standards was to be introduced and the number of inspections stepped up. More effective risk assessment instruments – in particular, for proving the occurrence of non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) – are needed. 

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