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Chemicals in Food Packaging – Just Another Scare Story

by on 2014/02/27

Food packaging has become a controversial issue of late, mostly related to the plastic waste that goes into landfill, but it is now coming under fire from a different direction.  The front page of Thursday’s (20th February) Daily Express screamed “Cancer Danger in Food Packs”, whilst the Guardian ran a piece entitled “Chemicals leaching into food from packaging raise safety concerns”.  Are plastics in our food packaging slowly poisoning us, or is this just another chemical scare story?

The stories arise from a press release (pdf) and journal article (neither newspaper article provides the links, the reader has to search for themselves) written by a group of scientists from the “Food Packaging Forum Foundation”.  The journal article, in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health, is behind a paywall, and on closer inspection contains no research whatsoever.  It is labelled as a commentary article, a short piece commissioned by the editors of the journal discussing previous work.  Scientists often publish review articles neatly summarising a particular area, but it is wrong to describe this particular opinion piece as any kind of new research.

The commentary itself reveals some interesting personal opinion.  The authors insist on using the term “synthetic chemical”, as if a chemical substance prepared in a laboratory is somehow worse than one found in nature, which is obviously not true.  Any scientist worth their sodium chloride would be aware of this – I’d certainly rather knock back some paracetamol synthesised in a laboratory than a 100% all-natural and organic death cap mushroom!  This chemophobia is even more laughable when reading further, as the authors go to town on formaldehyde release from food packaging.  You may be familiar with grisly images of corpses preserved in formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen – scary stuff, no?  But you may not be aware that this chemical is naturally occurring, and found in a number of foods we eat – a small apple will naturally contain as much formaldehyde as would be leached into 20 plastic bottles of water!  Are the authors advocating hazard warnings over the fruit and veg aisle?  Of course not.  Our body is well equipped to metabolise formaldehyde – we even generate it ourselves – and the tiny amounts found in food and packaging are not known to be harmful.

Whilst the use of “synthetic chemical” betrays the bias of the authors, it is also interesting to note who they represent.  The Food Packaging Forum Foundation describes itself as “a science communication organisation on food packaging and health” and a charity that needs donations to run. And who might these donors be? From their own website, they list Consol Glass, Bucher Emhart Glass, OI and Vetropack – all manufacturers of glass, the “healthy” alternative to plastic food packaging! Conflict of interest much?  The authors also call for “population-based assessment and biomonitoring” with regard to chemical exposure – another public funding plea perhaps?

So with the authors’ vested interests and deliberate use of scare tactics, along with the lack of any new evidence, it is fair to say that this is a non-story.  The Guardian has already come in for widespread criticism, and has since published a rebuttal from scientists, with the headline “Concerns over chemicals in food packaging misplaced”. Sense About Science have also responded by publishing a collection of quotes from scientific experts, one of whom concludes:

There is little to suggest that such combined exposures pose a threat to health other than in a few very specific circumstances.

J. Muncke, J. P. Myers, M. Scheringer, M. Porta (2014). “Food packaging and migration of food contact materials: will epidemiologists rise to the neotoxic challenge?”. Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health doi: 10.1136/jech-2013-202593.

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