Non-plastic food contact materials

Food contact materials are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with food, such as packaging and containers, kitchen equipment, cutlery and dishes. There are many types of non-plastic materials that come into contact with food, including coatings, paper and board, adhesives, printing inks and rubber.

The safety of food contact materials requires evaluation as chemicals can migrate from these materials into food. The materials should be manufactured in compliance with common European Union (EU) regulations, including good manufacturing practices, so that any potential transfer to foods does not raise safety concerns, change the composition of the food in an unacceptable way or have adverse effects on quality (for instance, taste and/or odour). However, most non-plastic food contact materials are not currently covered by specific European legislation.

Although EU legislation does not require that EFSA evaluate the safety of all non-plastic food contact materials, the Authority responds to requests from risk managers for these types of evaluations on an ad hoc basis. This work is carried out by EFSA’s Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavourings and Processing Aids (CEF).

Requests for urgent advice

Benzophenone and 4-methylbenzophenone are chemicals used, among others, in printing inks for food packaging. In 2009, following the detection of 4-methylbenzophenone in breakfast cereals in the EU, the European Commission asked EFSA for urgent advice on the risks to human health of this chemical. Initially, adopting a cautious approach due to the limited time and data available, EFSA indicated that a health concern could not be excluded for some children who regularly ate breakfast cereals contaminated with 4-methylbenzophenone at the highest levels reported. However, in its more comprehensive risk assessment published in May 2009, EFSA’s experts concluded there to be no health risks from the short-term consumption of breakfast cereals contaminated with 4-methylbenzophenone at the reported levels. The evaluation of EFSA was based on exposure and toxicological data for the similar substance benzophenone for which the CEF Panel determined a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.03 mg per kilogram of bodyweight.

In 2007, EFSA evaluated the possible health risks related to ITX, a substance used in inks applied to packaging materials including cartons. EFSA found that the presence of ITX in foods, whilst undesirable, does not give cause for health concern at the levels reported. Also, in 2003 and 2005, EFSA evaluated the safety of the chemical substance semicarbazide in food packaged in glass jars as well as, in 2006, epoxidised soybean oil, a substance used as a plasticiser in glass jar seals.

Cooperation with Member States

Following the Authority’s provision of urgent advice on benzophenone and 4-methylbenzophenone and ITX, national food safety authorities, meeting in EFSA’s Advisory Forum in April 2009, noted that such crises were caused by the release into foods of substances which are used to manufacture the non-plastic parts of food contact materials, e.g. coatings, paper and board, adhesives, printing inks and rubber. Delegates stated that useful experience about evaluations of such substances and on methods used were already available in Member States. The Advisory Forum and EFSA’s Scientific Committee agreed that the collection and the compilation of this knowledge would be essential for having an overview of the current situation and facilitate future discussions at the EU level. Based on the discussion, in February 2010, EFSA set up a scientific cooperation working group to collect the relevant information and to highlight gaps and propose priorities for future actions. The group was composed of members of EFSA’s CEF Panel, EFSA staff and relevant experts from the Member States. In addition to the review of approaches used for the assessment of these substances the group’s final report published in July 2011 also proposes criteria for prioritisation of future safety evaluations.

Main work in progress

EFSA adopts and publishes scientific opinions and provides scientific advice for risk managers on the safety of substances used or intended to be used to manufacture materials which come into contact with food as well as the safety of related processes.

General requirements for all food contact materials are laid down in Framework Regulation EC 1935/2004. Good Manufacturing Practice for materials and articles intended to come in contact with food is described in Regulation EC 2023/2006.

Some non-plastic materials and substances used in food contact materials are also covered by existing EU legislation: Directive 2007/42/EC on materials and articles made of regenerated cellulose film intended to come into contact with foods; Directive 84/500/EEC approximating EU countries’ laws on ceramic articles intended to come into contact with foods; Regulation 1895/2005/EC restricting use of certain epoxy derivatives in materials and articles intended to come into contact with food; and Directive 93/11/EEC on release of N-nitrosamines and N-nitrosatable substances from rubber teats and soothers.

The use of substances in most non-plastic food contact materials is not harmonised at European level. In several cases, national legislation regulates their use. However, there are still many substances present in non-plastic materials which are not regulated and are not evaluated for their safety by any national authority.

  • National legislation – covering groups of materials and articles for which EU legislation is not yet in place   – European Commission

In July 2012, the European Commission recognised the need for future action in this area by adopting a roadmap for non-plastic food contact materials. The roadmap considers several options (and combinations thereof) for action at EU and/or national level, including:

  • No action at EU level leaving Member States to set up national requirements
  • New EU lists of (permitted/prohibited) substances, materials or processes
  • Material-specific rules on good manufacturing practice
  • Obligations and criteria such as guidance from EFSA on the scientific risk assessment of non-plastic materials
  • New obligations and criteria for industry on information exchange and certification.

Proposals to be implemented at EU level may be either EU regulation, EU guidance, or self-regulation by industry.

Following assessment of these options the Commission aims to hold a public consultation with stakeholders on the proposals.