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A Toxics-Free Future

International scientists sound alarm bell over harmful chemicals coming in contact with our food

An international group of 33 world-renowned scientists published today a peer-reviewed consensus statement on the impact of food contact chemicals on human health and recommended improvements of the assessment of chemicals in a health-protective way [1]. Civil society groups from Europe, the U.S. and Asia have issued a declaration of concern in response to this consensus statement, calling on regulators to upgrade regulatory frameworks in order to protect public health while ensuring a transition away from single-use towards safe and reusable food packaging [2].

The “Impacts of food contact chemicals on human health: a consensus statement” is based on more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies. The authors confirm important concerns, starting with the fact that hazardous chemicals can transfer from food contact materials into our food. Many of the chemicals used in materials and finished packaging articles are either hazardous to human health or their risks have not been evaluated. Some of these chemicals are known endocrine disruptors (EDCs), while others are expected to cause cancer, harm reproduction, build up in our bodies, persist in the environment or affect our DNA [3].

From a European perspective, the consensus statement is especially relevant considering that many materials containing chemicals and used in packaging articles are not covered by current European Union legislation. Only five out of seventeen materials used for the processing or packaging of food are regulated at the European level: ceramics, regenerated cellulose film, active and intelligent materials, plastics and recycled plastics. Widely used materials such as paper and cardboard – which are often promoted as being more environmentally friendly in response to plastic pollution concerns – are not regulated at the EU level, meaning that people living in different parts of the Union are not equally protected [4].

Natacha Cingotti, senior health and chemicals policy officer at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said: “Nobody should ever have to worry about being exposed to harmful chemicals through food; yet thousands of chemicals can be used in the processing and packaging of our food without all of them going through full safety testing. This consensus statement adds yet further urgency to make the upgrade of the regulatory framework on food contact materials a top priority under the European Green Deal and to put health first in doing so.”

The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a co-signer to the declaration of concern, has long advocated for health-protective legislation on hazardous chemicals in food packaging and other food contact materials [5]. Together with the civil society groups that signed this declaration, we are calling on lawmakers to:

  1. Ensure full disclosure and traceability of chemicals used in packaging throughout the supply chain;
  2. Restrict the use of hazardous chemicals in food packaging (and products), and prevent regrettable substitutions, and;
  3. Adopt policies that support the transition towards safe, reusable, and refillable packaging.

HEAL is advocating for a reform of the European legislative framework on food contact materials:

  • Our concerns about the chemicals present in food contact materials are explained in an easy-to-use briefing about the topic. First published in 2016 and updated in May 2019, this document forms the basis of our work on food contact materials.
  • Together with BEUC, ChemTrust, ClientEarth and Zero Waste Europe, we support calls for a full reform of the legislative framework governing food contact materials on the EU market in order to deliver the European Green Deal for people and for a toxic-free environment.

 

Notes:

[1] https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12940-020-0572-5

[2] https://www.unwrappedproject.org/call-to-action

[3] https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Food-Contact-Materials-Briefing-Health-and-environment-Alliance-HEAL-PRINT_final.pdf

[4] Consumer tests have on multiple occasions found chemicals harmful for human health in pizza boxes (https://kemi.taenk.dk/bliv-groennere/test-unwanted-chemicals-found-pizza-boxes), and paper straws and cups (http://www.beuc.eu/publications/eu-needs-rules-chemicals-coffee-cups-straws-and-other-paper-food-packaging-consumer/html)

[5] https://www.env-health.org/how-the-chemicals-in-food-contact-materials-are-putting-our-health-at-risk/