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Searching for practical solutions for safe Food Contact Materials

International Akademie Fresenius Conference discussed the European legislation and new initiatives

This year, the EU provisions on food contact materials are up for review: The EU Commission will be conducting a series of consultations as part of the review procedure – and has set up a number of scientific focus groups to this purpose. Akademie Fresenius held an international conference in Düsseldorf on 13 and 14 June to discuss the process status and the road ahead. The organiser was able to win the support of numerous experts from the scientific sector, the food industry, as well as from the EU Commission, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA and the food monitoring and food assessment authorities for this event.

Konrad Grob of the Cantonal Laboratory Zurich presented an extremely critical opinion of the European provisions on Food Contact Materials (FCM) which are currently under revision. He regards these quite simply as being “not feasible.” For example, only a fraction of the FCMs currently in usage today are actually covered by the EU legislation. He said that the official checks were only directed at a few, well-known compounds and that it was impossible to include impurities and reaction products. On top of the inadequate legal provisions, the authorities also lacked resources – allowing them to do little more than carry out random checks. 

Previous legislation off-target – adjustments overdue

Konrad Grob of the Cantonal Laboratory Zurich looked at the European Commission’s initiative on examining the effectiveness of the legal framework for Food Contact Materials/packaging (FCM). 

This concept, which originated in the 1970s, divided FCM into 17 different types and set out to create a specific regulation for each individual type, including a list of authorised raw materials as well as guidelines for migration testing. However, in the past 40 years, only a very small share of these have actually been implemented. Official resources are insufficient to fulfil these plans. This is why such a  large gap between the general safety requirements pertaining to FCM and reality exists – hardly any of the FCM currently on the market comply with the safety demands placed on the migrating substances.

Producers must examine the safety of all the migrating substances for which there is currently no specific regulation in place (i.e. the vast majority) themselves. The legislation, therefore, needs to be adapted accordingly: The priority should no longer be on authorising new substances (around 10 substances per year) but on getting the producers to do the testing for the tens of thousands of substances that migrate into food from the FCM now on the market. The official food monitoring authorities are responsible for ensuring that the producers carry out this self-assessment and for the respective monitoring. The legislation must support this self-assessment by ensuring that the demands are clear-cut (to be supplied by EFSA) and by facilitating efficient controls and enforcing harmonisation across Europe. Today, the official food monitoring bodies lack to a large extent the competence to check toxicological assessments. These checks must be supported by EFSA and the (obviously frequent) causes of complaint harmonised. Finally, there must be a harmonised approach to determining how to handle non-compliant FCM (e.g. using work plans as a transitional measure). The legislation, therefore, needs to move the focus away from the pre-market assessment of the implemented substances over to examining those FCM already on the market.

After all, it will only be possible to enforce safety requirements for FCM, if these are strongly backed by the packers and food industry. The latter are interested in using FCM that have been proven to be safe but need to be able to fall back on reliable assessments. This is just one of the reasons why Konrad Grob pleaded for keeping a list of materials that are compliant and considered safe. This would give producers that do good compliance work a competitive advantage.

Konrad Grob called upon the industry to intensify its self-assessment efforts. The industry should carry out its own assessment of the risk of all the migration substances not yet approved. The work of the authorities should concentrate on implementing self-assessment practices amongst the producers and on providing them with help and support. 

New EU guidance defines the requirements for mineral oil analysis and reporting

Numerous contributions and discussions at the Akademie Fresenius Conference were devoted to analysing and combatting mineral oil residues. These represent one of the major challenges that food packaging manufacturers have had to face during the past few years. Mineral oil hydrocarbons (MOSH = Mineral Oil Saturated Hydrocarbons and MOAH = Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons) can seep into foodstuffs from packaging materials made of recycled paper containing, for example, printer’s ink. The body easily absorbs MOSH and MOAH from food. These then accumulate in body fat and the organs, such as the spleen and the liver. The monitoring authorities, scientific field and politics have all become involved in this topic. Now, numerous scientific opinions, solutions and findings from specialised groups are on the table. 

In early 2019, the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) published its “Guidance on sampling, analysis and data reporting for the monitoring of mineral oil hydrocarbons in food and food contact materials”. Stefanka Bratinova of the JRC presented this guidance document at the conference.  It performs an overview of the advantages and drawbacks of the different analytical approaches available for MOSH/MOAH determination and sets down the minimum performance requirements for a relevant analytical method. In addition the Guideline define the sampling and reporting requirements.

The Working Group of the Federal States on Consumer Protection has established benchmark levels for mineral oil hydrocarbons in food

In May 2019, the Working Group of the Federal States on Health-Related Consumer Protection (LAV) and the German Federation for Food Law and Food Science (BLL) and published their “Benchmark levels for mineral oil hydrocarbons in food” as part of a joint project. Rüdiger Helling, a food chemist working for the Saxon State Ministry of Social Affairs and Consumer Protection, regards this project as a new model for the collaboration between the industry and the enforcement authorities in the field of food safety. These mutual benchmark levels are intended to help the monitoring authorities and product testers to evaluate whether a solid, professional approach is being used to evaluate the findings for the individual products - both from a product and process-specific point of view. These benchmark levels were derived from over 10,000 individual, anonymised data records. The JRC guidance served as a methodical reference basis for the analytical examination of whether these benchmark levels were being complied with. Currently, the Working Group of the Federal States is collecting more data records. Once these have been evaluated, the benchmark levels are to be extended to include more product groups. 

Microplastics: More research required

Not only are mineral oil residues posing major challenges for packaging manufacturers and the food industry: Microplastic residues are also causing headaches. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) have analysed the uptake of microplastics through food. Alfonso Lampen of the BfR presented the results. Although it is possible today to prove that microplastics may reach the food chain,  the scientific sector still does not know enough about the uptake through nutrition, bioavailability and the toxicological mechanisms involved. It is crucial to conduct more research on material characterisation, detection and cellular uptake. 

The first tests that the BfR carried out themselves - both using human intestinal epithelial cell cultures and animal trials - showed that although plastic particles of up to around 4 μm in diameter could be absorbed by the intestinal epithelial cells, the animal trials demonstrated that despite administering very large numbers of plastic particles, ranging in size from 1 - 10 μm, very few single particles could be found in the intestinal epithelial cells examined. The tests so far carried out by the BfR on the oral uptake of microparticles using various model particles did not show any indication of damage to intestinal tissue.

Environmentally friendly plastic alternatives with huge potential: Biobased polymers

Microplastics in food and the ever-growing piles of plastic waste from disposable products and packaging are arousing the interest of consumers and the industry in alternative solutions. As a result, plastic packaging which is manufactured at least in part from renewable (biobased) raw materials is now finding itself at the centre of focus. Innovation consultant Harald Käb from the narocon consulting company provided an overview of the development and marketing of packaging materials made of biobased plastics. Despite a really small market share in Europe of only 0.5 percent, Harald Käb considers these materials to have considerable economic and ecological potential. He stated that apart from CO2 savings, biobased polymers also offered specific functionality, although EU legislation was lagging way behind development. Käb also said that numerous questions were still waiting to be answered and that there was a lack of incentives to produce and apply such materials.

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