In the third part of FoodProductionDaily.com's special edition on dry food packaging, Nick Kernoghan, UK director for the industry consultants, said harmful effects from the chemical would only likely manifest themselves in the long-term.
He also cited scientific opinion saying eating a balanced diet would reduce exposure to the dangerous chemicals below acceptable levels.
Kernoghan outlined a number of possible answers to the problem but stressed it was key that industry be allowed time to develop workable solutions.
Knee jerk reaction
The issue of mineral oil migration hit the headlines last month after media reports flagged up apparent dangers from the substances leaching from recycled paper and aboard packaging into foodstuffs.
The mineral oils, which have carcinogenic properties, are thought to accumulate in the liver, heart valves and lymph nodes, the Pira expert noted.
“However, these are all long-term chronic affects and people eating a balanced diet should not suffer any adverse health consequences in the short or medium term and, maybe not in the longer term unless their exposure is particularly high,” said Kernoghan.
He added: “Therefore there is time to develop solutions to this problem and industry can afford to avoid knee jerk decisions such as switching packaging to all virgin fibre.”
What is the problem?
Health concerns are based on two studies, one published in February 2010 and the other in October, by the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zurich.
The first paper highlighted the inclusion of newsprint in recycled paper and board as the main source of the mineral oil and migration at fairly high levels. The study also raised the clash between meeting European recycling targets and controlling this migration as one of the solutions would clearly to use less recycled and more virgin material in food packaging.
The second study analysed 119 samples of dry food packed in paperboard boxes for migration of mineral oil. Mineral hydrocarbons were again found in all foods packed either without an inner plastic bag, or with a polyethylene bag. Levels of saturated hydrocarbons ranged from 4 to 28 mg/kg and aromatic hydrocarbons from 0.7 to 6.1 mg/kg depending on the food type and time in contact.
While highly refined mineral oils can be used as plastic additives, it is the presence of technical grades used in newsprint that are the main cause of concern, along with some printing inks which are thought to account for a quarter of the contamination.
Recycled packaging used as secondary packaging is estimated to be a minor source, Kernoghan added.
Regulatory agencies across Europe have so far differed in their assessment of the situation.
Germany’s BfR has declared the matter a cause for concern but has yet to introduce specific legislation as it believes more research is necessary to establish the severity of the risk. In the meantime, it hosted a summit on the issue last year dedicated to exploring strategies to minimise risk, such as using aluminium-coated inner liners and boosting virgin fibre uptake.
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it was “not aware of any firm evidence to suggest that there are food safety risks related to mineral oils in recycled food packaging”. It said the research was interesting but incomplete.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently examining the issue as part of its proposals to draw up an opinion on non-plastic food contact materials – due to be completed later this year.
Industry players have declared that the issue is firmly on their radar but, like Pira’s Kernoghan, say the problem will take time to address.
Last month the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) told FoodProductionDaily.com its members were taking the situation seriously.
“Eliminating the root cause is the most sustainable option and we have been in dialogue with stakeholders about the phasing out materials containing mineral oils by taking steps such the reformulation of inks,” said the group’s managing director Teresa Presas.
She added packaging companies were committed to using mineral-oil free inks and, where possible, using recovered paper types with “minimum mineral oil content”. But the CEPI chief cautioned that such changes in technology would take time.
Food giant Nestle said it is already collaborating with paper manufacturers to evaluate different approaches for developing new grades of recycled paper. One promising approach is the better selection of waste material to exclude newsprint, said Hilary Green, the company’s head of R&D communications. She added the potential risk posed by mineral oils leaching from recycled cardboard into foods has been on the radar of packaging scientists at Nestle “for some time”.
Kernoghan has put forward a number of potential solutions but warned a universal answer was unlikely with resolutions varying depending on “different combinations of pack, food and shelf life’.
Development of inner linings that have mineral oil barrier properties one was one potential solution – although he acknowledged there were potential cost implications with this.
The incorporation of more virgin fibre was a possibility but the Pira director points out this would fail to eliminate the problem unless 100 per cent virgin fibre is used.
Commenting on this scenario, he said: “There are cost and environmental implications and it is potentially tremendously disruptive to the packaging supply chain if universally adopted in the short-term.”
Another would be to improve the sourcing of recycled board to reduce mineral oil exposure. This would only be a partial solution as it would not eradicate exposure and there were practical issues over national collection infrastructures that may make it very difficult.
He said there were likely other answers but that “the important thing is that industry is allowed the time to develop solutions”.