A new study by consumer group BEUC underscores the need for EU-wide rules to regulate non-plastic food packaging and protect consumers from potentially harmful chemicals.
New tests by BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, claim to show that food packaging made of coloured paper and cardboard may contain and release chemicals originating from the inks used for printing.
The claims come amid an ongoing shift from plastic to paper packaging for a range of products.
Paper is the second most used food packaging material after plastics and used for items like coffee cups and straws. But, unlike plastics, there are no EU rules governing paper’s use as a “food contact” material.
With single-use plastics set to be banned in the EU from 2021, the BEUC tests have raised safety concerns over some alternatives like paper. The group says the results show the need for EU-wide laws regulating the use and safety of all paper and cardboard food packaging.
In the tests, BEUC analysed 76 samples of printed paper or board food packaging, such as coffee cups, paper straws, printed napkins and grocery products.
BEUC said the findings show that more than one in six samples contained primary aromatic amines, some of which are suspected to cause cancer. Nine samples contained these chemicals above the limit set in the EU Plastic Regulation.
Almost all 76 samples contained UV filters. Some UV filters are suspected to cause cancer or disrupt the hormone system. Further analysis of 21 samples showed that UV filters migrate into food above the recommended levels in six products, including a children’s box of raisins.
The safety of most of the substances found to migrate into food has not been evaluated by the EU food safety watchdog, EFSA.
Reacting to the findings, Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, told this website, “Most consumers naturally assume that the material in direct contact with their food is free of harmful chemicals but that is sadly not the case.”
“Chemicals in packaging that leak into our food ultimately enter our bodies, but they have no place there. These tests add to the growing evidence by consumer groups across Europe that paper food packaging may not be as innocent as it seems.”
“To protect consumers’ health, the EU needs to develop strict rules that are more than a paper tiger. It is worrying that paper, which is the second most used food packaging after plastic, is used in contact with our food without a safety net.”
“To protect consumers’ health, the EU needs to develop strict rules that are more than a paper tiger”
Goyens went on, “With the ambitious ban on single-use plastic around the corner, the EU must ensure that alternatives such as paper and board food packaging are safe for consumers.”
BEUC, which is based in Brussels, said the test results suggest that printed paper and board food packaging materials may contain and release “problematic chemicals”, including many that have not been evaluated by the European Food Safety Agency.
While none of the tested products “in isolation” may endanger human health, they nonetheless are said to contribute to overall consumer exposure to problematic – and in some cases non-evaluated – chemicals.
The results echo a similar test of fast-food packaging run in 2017 by EU consumer groups. It found high levels of problematic fluorinated compounds in one third of tested fast food packaging.
Scientists suspect that fluorinated compounds may have adverse effects on human health, such as cancer, infertility and obesity.
“With the ambitious ban on single-use plastic around the corner, the EU must ensure that alternatives such as paper and board food packaging are safe for consumers”
This new test, said BEUC, again underscores the need for the European Commission to develop EU-wide rules for the presence of chemicals of concern in all paper and board materials in contact with food. To date, only plastic is regulated.
The Commission has itself conceded that the health of consumers is not adequately safeguarded for printed materials in contact with food.
The European Parliament has called for action to make sure problematic substances stay out of food packaging and food.
Similarly, earlier this year, the European Court of auditors flagged in a report that harmonised safety rules for food packaging other than plastics are still needed.
Martin Banks is a senior reporter at The Parliament Magazine