The topic of “safe food packaging” continues to dominate discussions taking place throughout the global food processing and packaging industries. There is no standardized interpretation around the definition of safe food packaging, and what it means will vary from person to person.

From a practical scientific standpoint, the definition of safe food packaging would seem straightforward: if there are chemicals that can migrate from the package to the food, it needs to be known, quantified and assessed for its potential risk to human health.  It sounds simple, but, in reality, it isn’t. 

Not only is it important to consider the final package construction, but also the processes that are used to convert the raw materials into the final packaged product, the method by which the package is filled, and the conditions in which the packaged food is handled before and after it reaches the consumer. 

Each variable generates a multiplicity of analytical tests that must be performed in order to assess the safety of the packaged food product.  Consider the sheer number of food processing plants around the world that make the packaged foods we eat. On any given day, that same food product can leave that plant under multiple brand owners’ labels. It is the supplier’s responsibility if a chemical is found in a foodstuff as a result of the packaging, that the source of that chemical must be identified and assessed using the most appropriate and realistically conservative toxicological data available. There are inherent complexities in tracing a particular chemical to its source and having the data available to show it is safe.

Knowledge is Key

Without sufficient data to support the safe use of adhesives, inks and coatings used in flexible food packaging, it is easy for consumers to assume that exposure to these chemicals leads to harm. Without knowledge of the migration profile of a product and understanding of the toxicity of these migrants, the industry could potentially be faced with a situation where a chemical is identified, and there is no data to support its risk profile and toxicology assessment.

The concern then becomes more about public perception than science and toxicology, hence the term “public toxicology.” All those who supply processed food or packaging are continually subject to the court of public opinion. Consumers today rely greatly on food that is convenience-packaged using a variety of materials ranging from plastic to steel.

However, public toxicology is what ultimately governs public perception of the safety of packaged foods. Meeting regulations is not a guarantee that suppliers will not be subject to trial in the court of public opinion. Brand owners are taking their own measures to ensure that packaging does not harm human health – and rightfully so. A single product recall can destroy a brand, and it is this fear that keeps brand owners and packaging suppliers up at night. So what prevents a recall from happening? 

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are not just how you operate your manufacturing plants, but also your company's role in the “farm-to-fork” supply chain. Depending on the materials you supply for use in the final packaging, you could be a potential source of chemical migration. As such, it is every supplier’s responsibility to understand the migration properties of their materials, reliably quantify them in the various food simulants, and ensure that the risk assessment for each material is available for immediate access by customers.

Analytically detecting and quantifying is complicated science. Generally, this process involves separating molecules and detecting them. Sometimes they are not easy to see or quantify because of their chemical structure. Analytical method development is critical to detection and quantification, and the technologies and knowledge to do so continue to advance year after year. A food package, the converting process, and the brand owner’s specific food product formulation all ultimately dictate what could migrate.

Ashland Inc.

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