Fear of Chemicals in Food Packaging Is Unwarranted
Over the past few years, there has been a growing trend to publicize the concerns of a few groups about the presence of phthalates in food. Just recently, the grocery retail group Ahold Delhaize announced a move to restrict the intentional use of phthalates and other chemicals in its private-brand products and food packaging. Likewise, Lakewood, Colo.-based health food chain Natural Grocers, has indicated that part of its goal to improve sustainability and human health includes a move to phthalate-free bulk packaging.
The negative publicity is not justified. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, phthalate use has been approved for a limited number of niche food-contact applications. For example, phthalates like di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) and di-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP) are used in tubing and conveyor belts sold as food-contact materials and cap gaskets for jarred food products. Phthalates are not used for foodservice and commercial wraps, including those that could be found in wrapping for meat, vegetables or sandwiches at grocery stores and delis, or purchased by consumers at grocery stores.
The author of “5 Ways Grocers Can Address Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging” notes that exposure to phthalates is mostly from food, and therefore says that there is an urgent need to take action to eliminate phthalates in food and food packaging. This is very misleading. Several expert panels on food safety around the world have found, based on rigorous evaluations, that the levels of phthalates present in the diet are low and do not pose a risk to public health.
For example, in 2007, the U.K. Food Standards Agency undertook a rigorous evaluation of phthalate exposure in the U.K. diet through its “Total Diet Study” (TDS). The study concluded that “levels of phthalates that were found in samples from the 2007 TDS do not indicate a risk to human health from dietary exposure alone, either when the compounds are considered individually, or when they are assessed in combination.”
These conclusions are supported by similar rigorous evaluations of phthalate exposures in the diet, some published as recently as 2018, from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), and Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The U.S. FDA concluded in 2018 that “there have been no studies to date which show any connection between human dietary exposure to phthalates and adverse health effects,” and is currently undertaking its own thorough review.
The author of “5 Ways Grocers Can Address Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging” says that phthalates like DINP and DIDP “pose significant financial, legal, regulatory and reputational liabilities to businesses that are not properly managing the risks.” These claims are unfounded. First, the evidence from credible food safety agencies around the world clearly indicates no findings of risk from phthalates in food. Secondly, phthalates like DINP and DIDP continue to be approved for use in food-contact applications (such as vinyl gloves, tubing, conveyor belts and cap gaskets) around the world, including in the United States, European Union (EU) and China.
The EU recently confirmed that dietary exposures to DINP and DIDP continue to be well below safe limits, and that it intends to maintain their use in food-contact materials. On Aug. 9, 2019, Japan published a draft list of materials that can be used in food contact. Phthalates like DINP and DIDP are included in this draft list. To be clear, regulatory agencies around the globe that are tasked with protecting public health are permitting the use of DINP and DIDP in food contact materials based on thorough review.
We believe that sustainability policies should be based on thoughtful consideration of product performance, durability and safety. Critically for consumers, while multiple reviews support the continued use of DINP and DIDP, there is no single dietary risk evaluation conducted by a reputable food safety agency for any of the purported “safer alternatives.” Rather, we are asked to simply trust that the alternatives are safe based on a subjective score from limited hazard screens run by for-profit organizations.