Bridging the knowledge gap on non-plastic food contact materials

FIP Network  - Food Contact Materials - 2014

Did you know that plastics and some ceramics used in food contact materials are regulated at European level and evaluated by EFSA for safety but a wide range of other materials – coatings, paper and board, adhesives, printing inks and rubber – are not? Small traces of these materials used in packaging, containers, cutlery and other articles can enter food and may pose a potential health risk to consumers. However, there is a lack of detailed science information about many of the substances found in these materials that makes this area of food safety particularly challenging.

Some Member States do safety evaluations of non-plastic materials and have established national “positive lists” of authorised substances. Recently, EFSA set up an expert network drawn from national authorities, universities and research centres as well as European Commission services and the Council of Europe, to pool expertise, knowledge and information in this area. The expert network held its first meeting in November 2014 to discuss the latest risk assessment activities, approaches and challenges in this area. 

Networking and knowledge communities

Simply bringing together in one room experts with similar experiences who face similar challenges is sometimes the greatest achievement.

For Dr Bianca Van De Ven of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) in the Netherlands, the network “is a useful platform for making contacts and learning about recent developments.”

Similarly, Gilles Rivière, Head of Physico Chemical Risk Assessment at the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) indicated, “this is a good opportunity to network and learn about what’s happening in other countries that we can take home.”

Pooling resources, building alliances

There is a vast range of substances used in these materials but a lack of scientific information for many of them. For most countries the only sustainable answer is to work together.

Dr Jitka Sosnovcová is a scientist at the Czech Republic’s National Institute of Public Health (SZU) and also heads the National Reference Centre for Food Contact Materials, which carries out analytical tests on food contact materials. “We have legislation on most materials, for most of them we have established positive lists, migration limits and residual limits but based on old evaluations. I’ve been working on food contact materials for over 20 years so I know what the information gaps are. But we have limited resources and, for coatings, rubber and metals and alloys, for example, we rely on the work done by other national authorities."

Dr Van De Ven gave three presentations on Dutch advances on coatings, paper and board and metals; however, her country too would prefer to share the workload. “We have established positive lists for nine different kinds of food contact materials, amongst other coatings, rubber and paper and board so we have a long history of work in this area that we are happy to share with other countries. But we don’t believe it is effective to keep these lists up to date country by country so we’re seeking cooperation with others.”

There is a strong willingness to cooperate even in bigger countries, as stressed by Gilles Rivière: “We don’t want to repeat but rather support what’s already being done so, for example, we are willing to support countries like Belgium and Germany that have done more data collection of non-plastic food contact materials.”

Europe-wide approaches

For decades, the Council of Europe’s committee of experts have provided lists of used substances that have assisted national regulation and risk assessment on coatings, paper and board, printing inks, and metals and alloys.

In the European Union, the European Commission has a Roadmap, which is leading to concrete objectives such as impact assessments, establishing baselines and possible future policy options. Many would favour a more harmonised EU approach.

“The main test for the network is to find harmonised guidelines for safety evaluations leading to a unified approach in all Member States,” stated Dr Sosnovcová.

Prof Perfecto Paseiro Losada, of the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, has been an adviser on food contact materials to the Spanish Government since 2002. “Public authorities, consumers and industry all care about safety but from different angles. I am taking part to understand if there will be a new harmonised legal framework to protect consumers.” 

There are limitations, as recognised by Dr Van De Ven: “The Metals & Alloys Resolution of the Council of Europe has become a benchmark. We would see harmonised EU legislation as a positive development but that doesn’t look likely for now.”

Presenting national research projects

Raising awareness about completed, ongoing and even future research projects is another objective of the network.

Dr Sosnovcová’s lab carries out research projects. “Currently, we have two national grants for food contact materials research, focusing on methods for quantified/qualified release from paper and board, and methods for determining migration from multi-layered materials.”

“We have carried out research on coatings to determine the main migrants, starting substances and breakdown products,” explained Prof Losada, “currently we need to establish what types of them are most widely in use as this is not clear and then prioritise studies on these substances.”

Similarly, Gilles Rivière highlighted ongoing university research supported by France on paper and boards and “hopes to share the findings with the network in the near future”.

And what about EFSA?

EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavourings and Processing Aids (CEF) is responsible for scientific assessments in this area when it comes to substances used in plastics. Dr Laurence Castle is a British chemist and Member of the CEF Panel.

“I’m interested in hearing about Member State risk assessment experiences and picking up expertise. The non-plastics area has similarities with plastics but poses different challenges.

“We’ve learnt of good examples of cross-border cooperation by Germany and Switzerland (on risk assessment of printing inks) and Denmark and France (on toxicity testing of contaminants in paper and boards). I’m also very encouraged to find out that EFSA’s guidance on plastics is often the starting point for evaluations in other food contact material areas.”

The (since former) Head of Food Ingredients and Packaging at EFSA, Dr Claudia Heppner, considered the meeting a success and is keen to build on the progress made. This view was strongly endorsed by Dr Eric Barthelemy, who was a driving force behind organising this FIP Network and also works at EFSA.

Dr Heppner noted that, “Developments at national level are particularly encouraging in three areas: coatings, paper and boards, and printing inks. We know that some substances are already covered by current positive lists for plastics. Also, tools are already available for future work, such as Belgium’s database and other data collection in Germany. But it would be good to do more fact finding on research projects and also make research organisations aware of funding provided by EFSA for research in these areas.

“Many risk assessment approaches are based on EFSA’s guidance as well as other international approaches. EFSA is updating its guidance on food contact materials and we plan to share this with the network in due course to benefit from their experience and expertise.

“We are already planning a follow up meeting in the first half of 2015 with the goal of providing a more comprehensive overview of risk assessment practices in each Member State.”