It’s almost impossible to imagine life without flexible, transparent and water-resistant food packaging, without plastic sandwich bags, cling film or shelves filled with plastic jars, tubs and tubes, and durable bags and boxes.
While storing food in containers dates back thousands of years, and food has been sold in bottles since the 1700s and cans since the 1800s, what might be considered the modern age of food packaging began in the 1890s when crackers were first sold in sealed waxed paper bags inside a paperboard box. Plastics and other synthetics began to appear in the 1920s and 1930s, shortly after chemical companies started experimenting with petroleum-based compounds and pioneering new materials that could be used for household as well as industrial applications.
Fast forward to 2014, upwards of 6,000 different manufactured substances are now listed by various government agencies as approved for use in food contact materials in the U.S. and Europe, materials that can legally go into consumer food packaging, household and commercial food containers, food processing equipment, and other products.
Recent analyses have revealed substantial gaps in what is known about the health and environmental effects of many of these materials and raised questions about the safety of others. A study had found that 175 chemicals used in food contact materials are also recognized by scientists and government agencies as chemicals of concern, chemicals known to have adverse health effects.
Presumably, the primary goal of food packaging is to keep food safe to eat. But what do we actually know about the stuff that surrounds our food? What do we know about how these materials may interact with the food they touch, or their potential effects on human health and the environment?
In the U.S., the FDA regulates food contact materials, classifying them as “indirect food additives.” These materials, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, include not only the polymers that make up plastics but also resins and coatings used in can linings and jar lids, pigments, adhesives, biocides and what the FDA charmingly calls “slimicides.” The FDA distinguishes these substances from those added to food itself by explaining that food contact materials are not intended to have a technical effect in such food, meaning that these substances are not supposed to change the food they touch.
Food packaging chemicals are not disclosed, and in many cases we don’t have toxicology or exposure data. In other words, food packaging need not carry any information about what it’s made of. Any such information is voluntary, often geared toward facilitating recycling and sometimes part of marketing campaigns declaring a product “free of” a substance of concern.