Over the past few months, there has been a lot of activity to address food packaging safety. There were the lawsuits against Burger King and McDonald’s, focused on forever chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in their packaging. And states in the United States and countries in the European Union have begun to take action against exposure to PFAS and other chemicals, including BPA, an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and resins. (You’ve probably seen reusable water bottles with labels that say “BPA Free”.)
These chemicals have been linked to health problems such as hypertension, cancer and infertility.
Tackling a tricky problem like exposure to chemicals from food packaging—some of these chemicals have been found in the bloodstream and placentas—will likely require multiple approaches.
“We have a long history of engaging businesses across the food supply chain around the need for safer food packaging,” said Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at EDF+Business. For example, the organization worked with a cross-industry group of foodservice companies, NGOs, and technical experts on the UP Dashboard, which the group describes as “a single yardstick for measuring and comparing the attributes of durability of commonly used utensils and foods”. packaging materials, especially those used in the catering industry.”
There is a huge lack of transparency in the system regarding chemicals used in packaging materials.
But there are still barriers for companies wanting to change their packaging. “There is a huge lack of transparency in the system regarding chemicals used in packaging materials,” Brown-West said.
EDF+Business recently launched its new online tool on food packaging, separate from the Scorecard, which aims to simplify the work of companies to develop packaging that is truly circular and free of toxic chemicals. EDF worked with an independent consultant and conducted research to better understand the current use of chemicals on the Food Chemicals of Concern (FCOC) list, compiled by the UP Scorecard group.
Brown-West said the tool provides guidance for companies who think, “There are so many chemicals I need to work on or need to [potentially] find in my system and eliminate. How do I start?”
Chemicals are added to food packaging throughout their supply chains (see illustration below), so it can be difficult to remove them all.
Brown-West noted that the tool is also his organization’s way of trying to ensure companies don’t see this as just one chemical issue.
“It’s not just PFAS. It’s not just BPA. It’s not just perchlorate. All of these chemicals are widely used in many types of food contact materials” , she said. “What is really needed is a whole-of-business approach to tackling chemical safety once and for all, not [take] one approach at a time.”
where you start
Let’s say you are an employee of a food company. You want to start eliminating as many chemicals as possible from your packaging, and you are using the EDF tool to get started. When you access the website, you can take one of two paths: click on a button that says “Food Containers” or a button that says “Chemicals of Concern”.
EDF’s recommendation is to “click on the food containers button and a food container icon to see what materials the type of container is made of”. Users can click the following options: carton container; clamshell plastic take-out containers; plastic groceries; metal bobbin; multi-material pouch or flexible box; tray, plate or disposable tray; or a glass bottle or jar.
Once you click on one of these packaging types, a list of the components the container is made from and the chemicals of concern associated with them will be displayed. For a cardboard container, the parts are the paper body, the paper/cardboard exterior and the cardboard liner.
If companies want to improve their reputation, or even just protect it… now is the time to really take action, be proactive and start addressing chemical safety today, instead of waiting or dismissing it.
The chemicals are presented in three levels, developed by the UP Scorecard group. Level 1 chemicals are the substances most imperative to address and avoid “because the potential health impacts of their migration into food are of serious concern”, according to the group. Levels two and three represent other sets of toxic chemicals “which should not be used in the manufacture of food contact materials”.
In addition to removing the FCOC from packaging, there is another call to action from EDF for food packaging.
“I wish all food companies had chemical policies,” Brown-West said. “But unfortunately today that is not the case.”
These policies can serve as a form of accountability and a framework for companies to explain chemical standards and commitments to themselves, their suppliers and other stakeholders. EDF+Business has created a model that companies can use to develop their policies.
“We think it’s very important for companies to really think about what their goals and actions are going to be in terms of transparency, in terms of phasing out known chemicals of concern and in terms of ensuring safer alternatives,” Brown-West said. “All of these things can be captured in a comprehensive corporate chemicals policy.”
She also noted that these resources are just a few of many that companies can use to reduce or eliminate the chemicals used in their products. The tools are there for them to get started.
“If companies want to enhance their reputation, or even just protect it… now is the time to really take action, be proactive and start addressing chemical safety today, instead of waiting or reject it,” Brown-West said.