In recent 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 the forever chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), in their packaging. And states across the U.S. and countries across the European Union have started to take action on 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 read "BPA-free.")
Solving a wicked problem such as chemical exposure from food packaging — some of these chemicals have been found in bloodstreams and placentas — will likely take multiple approaches.
"For a long time, we have been engaging companies all along the food supply chain around the need for safer food packaging," said Boma Brown-West, director for consumer health at EDF+Business. For example, the organization has been working with a cross-industry group of food service companies, NGOs and technical experts on the UP Scorecard, which the group describe as "a single yardstick for measuring and comparing the sustainability attributes of commonly used foodware and food packaging materials, particularly those used in the food service industry."
There is a huge lack of transparency in the system about which chemicals are used in packaging materials.
But there are still barriers for companies that want to change their packaging. "There is a huge lack of transparency in the system about which chemicals are used in packaging materials," Brown-West said.
EDF+Business recently launched its new food packaging web-based tool — separate from the Scorecard — that aims to help simplify companies’ work to develop truly circular packaging that is free of toxic chemicals. EDF worked with an independent consultant and conducted research to better understand the current usage 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 that are thinking, "There are so many chemicals out there for me to work on or for me to [potentially] find in my system and eliminate. How do I get started?"
Chemicals are added to food packaging throughout their supply chains (see illustration below), so it can be a daunting task to eliminate them all.
Brown-West noted that the tool is also her organization's way of trying to make sure that companies are not just looking at this as a single chemical issue.
"It's not just about PFAS. It's not just about BPA. It's not just about perchlorate. There's widespread use of all of these chemicals across many different types of food contact materials," she said. "What's really needed is a comprehensive approach from companies to tackle chemical safety once and for all, and not [take] a one-at-a-time approach."
Where you start
Let’s say you are a food company staffer. You want to get started on eliminating as many chemicals as possible from your packaging, and you’re using the tool from EDF to get started. When you get to the website, you can take one of two paths: clicking on a button that reads "Food Containers" or one that reads "Chemicals of Concern."
EDF’s guidance 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 on the following options: paperboard container; plastic clamshell takeout container; plastic grocery; metal can; multimaterial squeeze pouch or box; disposable tray, plate or platter; or glass bottle or jar.
Once you click on one of those packaging types, you’ll be presented with a list of the components that the container is made from and the chemicals of concern associated with them. For a paperboard container, the parts are paper body, paper/paperboard exterior and paperboard interior lining.
If companies want to enhance their reputation, or even just protect it… the time is now to really take action, to be proactive and start addressing chemical safety today, instead of waiting or kicking it down the road.
The chemicals are presented in three tiers, developed by the UP Scorecard group. Tier one chemicals are the substances that are most imperative to address and avoid "because the potential health impacts from their migration into food raises serious concerns," according to the group. Tiers two and three represent other sets of toxic chemicals "that should not be used in the manufacture of food contact materials."
In addition to eliminating the FCOC from packaging, there is another call to action from EDF for food packaging.
"I would like for all food companies to have chemicals policies," Brown-West said. "But unfortunately, today, that's not the case."
Such 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 created a template companies can use to develop their policies.
"We think it's very important for companies to really think through what their goals and actions are going to be with respect to transparency, with respect to elimination of known chemicals of concern, and with respect to ensuring safer alternatives," Brown-West said. "All of those 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 available for them to get started.
"If companies want to enhance their reputation, or even just protect it… the time is now to really take action, to be proactive and start addressing chemical safety today, instead of waiting or kicking it down the road," Brown-West said.