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ClientEarth Communications

21st May 2021


Ordered takeaway recently? Here’s what you need to know about the chemicals lurking in your food

With restaurants shut down for long periods and food delivery apps making it easier than ever before to order food to the couch, takeaway containers have been entering our homes at a fast pace. If you’ve ordered takeaway, or even been to the supermarket recently, packaging will be on your mind.

But many of those seemingly safe containers – alongside other materials used to process or store food – may have harmful chemicals lurking inside.

Have you ever thought about the materials coming into contact with your food?

Almost everything we eat has been in contact with one or more food contact materials (FCMs). We’re talking about anything from conveyor belts in food factories, to the packaging it’s sold in, to pans and other kitchen utensils and plastic containers used for storage.

Unfortunately, these everyday items contain chemicals which leach into food and may have consequences for our health.

Consider a single pot of yogurt: even if you forget about the production process, the finished yogurt may enter into contact with plastic, aluminium, coating, adhesives and inks. A number of chemicals including additives, pigments and metals are found in these materials.

Other infamous chemicals also regularly come into contact with our food: bisphenols, phthalates, endocrine disruptors, and many more. The non-stick pan coated with “forever chemical” PFAS even has its own Hollywood drama. And PFAS have been found in most fast-food chains’ packaging and tableware across Europe. These chemicals have been proven to alter our hormonal behaviour and put our health in direct danger.

In the EU, it is estimated that over 8,000 chemicals are used in the making of materials that come into contact with our food. Most of these substances are not tested or properly regulated.

Europeans list pesticide residues in food as one of the highest perceived risks for food safety. So while many shoppers might be making efforts to buy organic food to avoid pesticides, they may still end up with hazardous chemicals in their food from the materials it came in contact with. Scientists found that food contamination from chemicals migrating from food packaging could be 100% greater than from pesticides and other environmental pollutants.

Is my sandwich packet actually a problem for my health?

Many chemicals commonly found in food packaging have hazardous properties associated with hormone disruption, reproductive issues and even cancers and diabetes.

But the properties of most chemicals found in food packaging is not completely understood or even not known at all. Most have never even been tested for toxicity.

Most of the chemicals in FCMs have not been intentionally added, they are byproducts of manufacturing processes.

What’s really alarming is that some hazardous chemicals that are automatically prohibited or set for phase-out under other EU laws are still permitted in food contact materials – which shows the problem with how the legislation currently approaches these materials.

What should we do about it?

The Food Packaging Forum – an authority on FCMs – has outlined some general rules of thumb. Chemicals are more likely to migrate into food:

  • When the food contact materials are exposed to high temperatures – which is why it’s best to avoid microwaving food in the container it comes with.
  • When contact times are long.
  • When the food to material ratio is high, which is why some argue it’s best to avoid small portion sizes.
  • When the food is fatty and/or acidic.

But ultimately, it’s not up to individuals to deal with this. Measures to adequately protect people’s health need to be adopted in Brussels.

The role of EU law

For years, our lawyers have warned that EU rules on harmful chemicals in the food supply chain are too weak and leave the public open to unacceptable risks.

While plastics and ceramics actually have limits – albeit worryingly weak ones – attached to them, chemical content limits for materials like paper, inks, coatings and adhesives do not.

Brussels is now finally moving ahead with a revision of FCM rules. Our lawyers are fighting for policymakers to:

  • Ban the most dangerous chemicals from FCMs such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • Adopt comprehensive regulation tackling FCMs as a whole, rather than piecemeal rules that leave hazardous substances unregulated.
  • Establish clear responsibilities along the food supply chain.

So before these new rules come into force, it’s best to equip yourself with reusable glasses or steel boxes.