Food safety and design for packaging sustainability are integrally linked Increased consumer awareness has become a major factor when it comes to producing new products and offering new services in any industry. With more information regarding the current state of the environment and the phenomenon that is climate change, consumers have started to demand more accountability from companies. In response, several sustainability advocacies and projects have been initiated by different organizations.
Perhaps one of the most heavily criticized industries when it comes to sustainability is the packaging industry. In 2019 alone, an estimated amount of 79.3 million tons of waste has been generated globally. In 2018, packaging materials have been declared to be a part of major contributor to municipal solid waste and consisted of materials from food and beverages as well as medications and cosmetics.
In addition to the ever-popular slogan, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” the packaging industry has focused on other angles to achieve sustainability. This includes producing biodegradable, compostable, and refillable packaging materials. In more advanced movements, packaging companies have adopted the use of unconventional raw materials sourced from more renewable origins.
Food safety concern
Along with the novel or more practical ways of packaging foods, there remains the main concern when it comes to the topic – food safety. The main objective of food packaging is to extend the shelf life of the food by protecting it from external environmental factors. In addition, the packaging itself must be inert enough not to cause any reaction to the food which in turn can cause foodborne illnesses.
While food packagings made from plastics significantly affect the environment, their inert characteristics have been proven time and again. In addition, their ability to keep a hygienic and safe environment for packaged food is sometimes unrivaled. This hurdle is something sustainable packaging innovations are trying to address.
Sustainable packaging includes concepts of recycling and sourcing raw materials from renewable sources such as in the case of bioplastics. The more popular method is to source biomaterials such as plant fibers in making packaging materials. This innovation is what Tetra Pak promotes as their main movement toward sustainable packaging. On the other hand, other companies recycle a part of their used packaging materials as part of their new batches of packaging. This latter movement reduces the need to source out virgin materials to come up with new packaging materials.
Although ideally more sustainable, the use of biomaterials and recycled components on new packaging raises safety concerns. Unlike glass and metal, plastics and cardboard can only be recycled for a limited amount of time. As such, the eyes of concerned consumers are more focused on scrutinizing their use and safety,
Safety regulations for sustainable packaging
Different food regulatory bodies across the world have their regulations when it comes to food contact materials. These regulations help control the use and safety of sustainably recycled packaging materials to ensure that they will not affect the safety of food while prolonging its shelf life.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration controls the use of recycled plastics on food packaging with their guidance records. The agency does not consider this direction as a regulation, rather a guide in manufacturing food packaging materials with a portion from recycled plastics. The scheme is based on the regulatory requirements that the agency has set out for the use of virgin polymers. That is, a company’s use of recycled plastics on their new packaging materials must adhere to the food additive regulation under 21 CFR.
In addition to this guide, the FDA also issued recommendations on how companies can ensure that recycled packaging materials are free from significant contaminants. The recommendations are aimed at evaluating whether the addition of recycled virgin materials will affect the packaging’s safety. The process involves exposing the virgin materials to chemicals that may reach the consumers and then the material is processed through the manufacturer’s recycling method. If proven that the material did not absorb any of the contaminants after recycling, the process is considered capable of removing contaminants from the reused materials.
In the UK, while the food contact packaging law or Regulation EU 10/2011 exists, it does not cover the use of recycled materials for making new packaging. At most, Regulation EC 282/2008 provides guidelines for recycling plastic materials that will eventually come in contact with foods. The regulation requires that the intended materials, fully recycled or in part of virgin materials, should only be processed by operations approved by the European Food Safety Authority and the Commission.
The need for food safety regulations
Although sustainable packaging has shown significant contributions in protecting the environment, the safety and regulations for current processing methods are still being improved. A huge movement away from the conventional ways of making food packaging merits the attention of food agencies and consumers alike. Food safety regulations and guides on recycling food packaging and using biomaterials are essential to ensure that sustainability is achieved.
On the manufacturer’s end, the need for more efficient food safety management systems (FSMS) has become more crucial than ever. To implement new directives for monitoring the safety of sustainable packaging is to add another monitoring task in your daily operations. As such, implementing more advanced techniques such as using a digital FSMS would make the process lighter and more efficient. Companies such as FoodDocs have formulated software that automatically creates a digital FSMS complete with digital monitoring forms and checklists specific for your daily operations in just 15 minutes.
Without clear and established laws and regulations, the fate of sustainable packaging hangs by the guidance and effectiveness of relative rules. As the majority of companies move towards the use of sustainable packaging, the need for these laws becomes more and more imperative by the day. Industries using this type of packaging must also always be aware of the potential risks and added precautions in venturing into a fairly new processing field. Implementing a more efficient FSMS to monitor daily operations that is also capable of performing traceability tasks is a saving grace for transitioning companies.