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Food Contact Materials

Food Contact Materials

Food contact materials are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with food, such as packaging and containers, kitchen equipment, cutlery and dishes. These can be made from a variety of materials including plastics, rubber, paper and metal.

Food contact materials also include those used in processing equipments, such as coffee makers or production machinery as well as containers used in transport. In addition, EU legislation for food contact materials covers materials in contact with water intended for human consumption, e.g. bottles, with the exception of fixed public or private water supply equipment.
The safety of materials in contact with food must be evaluated as molecules can migrate from the materials into food. The materials should be manufactured in compliance with EU regulations, which also require good manufacturing practices, so that any potential transfer to foods does not raise safety concerns, change the composition of the food in an unacceptable way or have adverse effects on the taste and odour of foods.

EU regulatory framework

The EU is currently harmonising its legislation on food contact materials to ensure food safety and to remove technical barriers to trade.

General requirements for all food contact materials are laid down in Framework Regulation 1935/2004. Specific EU regulations have been established for ceramics, regenerated cellulose film, plastics, recycled plastics and active and intelligent materials. In addition, there are Directives on single substances or groups used in the manufacture of food contact materials.

EFSA’s role and activities

EFSA adopts scientific opinions and provides scientific advice for risk managers on the safety of substances used or intended to be used to manufacture materials which come into contact with food as well as the safety of related processes (e.g. recycling of plastics).

This risk assessment is carried out by the Panel on food contact materials, enzymes, flavourings and processing aids (CEF). The Panel has a general task of evaluating substances intended for use in materials in contact with food. This work is part of the authorisation procedure where substances have to be evaluated by EFSA before their use in the EU can be authorised. The Panel’s work is based on reviewing scientific information and data usually submitted by applicants or by the European Commission. EFSA has published a guidance document for the presentation of an application for the safety evaluation of substances intended to be used to produce materials.

Benzophenone and 4-methylbenzophenone

Benzophenone and 4-methylbenzophenone are chemicals used, among others, in printing inks for food packaging. Following the detection of 4-methylbenzophenone in breakfast cereals in the EU, the Commission asked for urgent advice on the risks to human health of this chemical.

EFSA published a statement in March following an urgent request for advice from the European Commission. Following a cautious approach due to the limited time and data available, EFSA indicated that a health concern could not be excluded for some children who regularly ate breakfast cereals contaminated with 4-methylbenzophenone at the highest levels reported. However, in the more comprehensive risk assessment published in May 2009 the Panel considered there to be no health risks from the short-term consumption of breakfast cereals contaminated with 4-methylbenzophenone at levels reported earlier.

The Panel also determined a new TDI for the similar substance benzophenone of 0.03 mg per kilogram bodyweight, but concluded that the same TDI could not be applied to 4-methylbenzophenone.

Bisphenol A

EFSA has carried out risk assessments of Bisphenol A, which is a chemical mainly used in combination with other chemicals to manufacture plastics and resins. This work is described in more detail in the Topic on Bisphenol A.

Other substances

EFSA evaluated the possible health risks related to 2-Isopropylthioxanthone (ITX) in 2007, a substance used in inks applied to packaging materials including cartons. EFSA found that the presence of ITX in foods, whilst undesirable, does not give cause for health concern at the levels reported.

EFSA also evaluated the safety of the chemical substance semicarbazide (SEM) in food packaged in glass jars in 2005 and epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO), a substance used as plasticiser in glass jar seals in 2006.

Recycled plastics

The safety of materials which are made using recycled plastics needs to be assessed by EFSA before the European Commission can authorise their use in food contact materials.

In July 2008, the CEF Panel published guidelines to help industries to compile their applications on processes used for the production of recycled plastics for food contact uses. This document provides guidance on the administrative and technical data required by EFSA to carry out its safety evaluations.

According to Regulation 282/2008, the evaluation process includes an initial phase of 18 months following the publication of EFSA guidelines. EFSA will prioritise the evaluation of applications received during this initial phase, which ends on 31 December 2009. These mainly concern processes which are already in use.

An EFSA working group has been set up and has already started working on the assessment of the dossiers received so far. The evaluation of all applications received in this initial phase is expected to finish in 2011, but the exact date will depend on the number of the dossiers received.

Active and intelligent packaging substances

Active food contact materials absorb or release substances in order to improve the quality of packaged food or to extend its shelf life. Intelligent food contact materials monitor the condition of packaged food or the surrounding environment, e.g. providing information on the freshness of the food.

In August 2009, EFSA published guidelines on the submission of dossiers for the safety assessment of active and intelligent substances used in food packaging. The guidelines specify for the industry which aspects EFSA will take into account when assessing the safety of these substances and the types of data needed to conduct the assessments. The evaluation will also consider the possible influence of manufacturing processes and the intended uses.

An EU-wide list of substances that can be used in the manufacture of these materials will be drawn up and substances will only be added to the list once their safety has been individually evaluated by EFSA.

Further information