Geoffrey Annison, director health nutrition and scientific affairs at the Australian Food and Grocery Council, says that consumer concerns surrounding the migration of chemicals from packaging into food has highlighted a gap in the nation’s food safety regulation, and that food manufacturers need to be prepared for possible changes to legislation.
As a result of this gap, the government’s food safety body, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) is on the path to potentially developing new regulation that addresses consumer concerns associated with food contact materials, both in terms of packaging and processes.
Annison told the 2014 Australian Institute of Packaging National Conference this week that FSANZ has taken inspiration from the European Food Safety Authority, which is increasingly focusing on the regulation of packaging, with particular attention to the migration of chemicals from packaging and food contact materials into food.
Annison brought up numerous examples of consumer concerns relating to packaging including BPA in plastics, mineral oil from recycled cardboard, discussions of phthalates in lids and more recently issues relating to the use of nanotechnology in food and food packaging.
“If there are any concerns about packaging, they don’t go away,” said Annison. “Even though we might deal with these issues when they come up, they never go away now with the internet. It is critically important that we understand when we are dealing with these issues not only how they are occurring, but also how we deal with them in the longer term.”
Consumer protection to be a point of focus
Annison said that FSANZ identified a gap in regulation relating to food contact material, and that consumer protection will be a specific point of focus during regulatory discussions.
“FSANZ have started some initial discussions with industry… and the AFGC was part of the initial advisory group that was pulled together to give advice… Last week they announced that they will be notifying the potential to raise proposal P1034… with a full release of the discussion paper later in the year.
“They are keen to avoid the re-runs of the issues such as BPA, and rather they want to develop a framework for the regulation of food contact materials.”
Annison says that in addition to P1034, FSANZ are also developing proposal P1025 which is a complete plain English re-write of the food standards code which came about as the result of a court case six years ago, where FSANZ’s code was criticised for being too difficult to interpret. Annison also noted that P1025 had references to packaging material in the draft edition that he had viewed.
“Under current regulations, there is very general advice about ensuring foods are safe when using materials that are in contact with food. Elsewhere there are specific limits on migration packaging components and this is what they are now proposing in proposal P1025 – to give general advice on packaging.”
Annison says that under proposal P1034, FSANZ are proposing to develop another industry advisory group to look at potential hazards and industry practices. He says that the proposal will look at current risk and residual risk with a particular focus on virgin packaging and recycled packaging. Annison also noted that FSANZ will be focusing on smaller packaging companies.
“They are not particularly concerned about the larger packaging companies, but they are a little bit concerned about some of the smaller packaging companies – not because there is any evidence of health risks associated with them, but just because they are not so familiar with those companies. So this is an opportunity for those companies to step up and talk about the technologies that they are using and essentially demonstrate to FSANZ why they are safe.”
Annison says that FSANZ will be exploring a number of avenues to address the issue, ranging from the general provisions that are currently in place under the food standards code, to potential regulatory, co-regulatory and self-regulatory options.
“We at the AFGC think that there should be a best practice regulation which includes the opportunity for self-regulation and code… But we must not forget that it is about consumers, and they want to know everything there is to know about food products including packaging and the environment."
Consumers have trust issues with industry
Annsion admitted that some consumer groups are not overly keen on the idea of industry self-regulation as “they don’t trust the industry” to provide a comprehensive account of the information that they seek. Annison says that the industry has a wealth of opportunities to demonstrate to consumers that they can be trusted, and pointed to the use of smartphone apps are a powerful tool to provide additional information.
“This is the concept of extended labelling,” says Annison of the smartphone apps.
“They may focus on nutrition, allergens or indeed packaging… The apps mean that labels themselves no longer limit the amount of information that we can provide consumers, and the AFGC will be making this point when it comes to advising the government on potential packaging regulations and information about packaging.”
Annison says that consumer and public health advocacy groups will be looking for strong regulations, and that now is the time for industry to promote self-regulatory responses by adopting the use of smartphone technology.
“Food and grocery packaging is a policy and regulatory challenge. There is international precedent for greater regulation, and hopefully there will be evidence based regulatory measures used [in the development process], but regulators will have a precautionary approach – they will err on the side of consumer protection,” says Annison.
“The AFGC will be in contact with packaging companies and with their industry bodies representing them to perhaps work out the best way to manage this issue to make sure that the regulatory response that may come out of FSANZ is as benign as possible in terms potential impact on industry but still basically serves the fundamental role of regulatory arrangement which is to provide the consumer with protection.”