Keep the ink out of my food

Undesirable migration: when substances harmful to health migrate from the packaging into food.

There is no reason why food should contain printing ink.

Eco-friendly is not always health friendly as well.

Merely appearing to be ecological is no guarantee for ensuring the consumer’s health is adequately protected. This is unfortunately particularly true in an area that is extremely sensitive for the well-being of all of us: food packaging. Various studies have made this clear. They have shown that substances that are undesirable because they are harmful to health can be transferred from paper and cardboard packaging, which is often recycled, to the foodstuffs it contains. According to the experts, this could be the case with recycled cardboard packaging.

Today, shops offer consumers most food products in packaged form. This is partly because packaged goods are easier to transport – and this is usually the case when customers take their shopping home, by the way. On the other hand, packaging serves to protect the food it contains from negative environmental influences and improve the shelf life of the goods. In this way, food packaging also helps prevent food from being wasted by preventing premature deterioration. That is why freshly bought food should be kept and stored – in its packaging – in appropriate sealed containers to prevent it from being attacked by harmful bacteria or becoming unfit for consumption too quickly. For example, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), an independent scientific institution commissioned by the German Federal Government to assess health risks for consumers, recommends using ‘packaging and containers suitable for food contact made of sustainable/recyclable material’ for storage.

And even though they are often recycled, this is where the packaging materials paper, cardboard and paperboard quickly reach their limits, as scientists have emphasized time and again. As consumer advisors have also found, when these materials are uncoated they do not form a barrier to moisture or oxygen. As a result, such packaging quickly becomes ‘softened’, but what is also particularly important is that bacteria and fungi in food products packaged in this way can multiply faster than is desired.

Recycling has its shortcomings

This is compounded by something that from an environmental point of view should actually be beneficial for the packaging materials paper, cardboard and paperboard: they are increasingly being produced from recycled materials. According to reports from consumer organisations, for both environmental and cost reasons over 70 per cent of all paper is now recycled. And 90 per cent of all cardboard packaging is produced using additions of paper that has been recovered. This means many of the cartons used for food packaging are also made using recycled paper. Recycling paper products in this way has a shortcoming: most of the products recovered were previously printed. As a result, printing inks also end up in the paper or cardboard material loop again, together with other undesirable substances such as adhesives and various other substances used in the printing industry. They can also be found in new food packaging because of the amount of recycled paper, cardboard and paperboard used.

And it is from this packaging that substances that are undesirable because they are harmful to health are transferred to the packaged foodstuffs or, as experts put it, ‘migrate’. German consumer organisations lament the fact that more than 250 potentially migrating substances have already been detected in cartons made from recycled materials. And a research project of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) clearly showed that at the end of its best-before date food in recycled cartons was contaminated with mineral oil hydrocarbons, plasticisers and components from printing inks. Besides mineral oil, the substances contained in printing inks are considered hazardous to health, and in some cases they are even carcinogenic and mutagenic.

For this reason, consumer advisors have long been calling for consumers to be better protected from the adverse health effects of these substances. The BfR also believes that it is ‘urgently necessary’ to limit the migration of mineral oil and other printing ink components from cardboard and board packaging into foodstuffs as much as possible. To this end, the authority publishes corresponding maximum values. Furthermore, to reduce the migration of undesirable substances into packaged food, the manufacturers of cardboard packaging can coat their materials on the inside or use plastic inner bags. However, such ‘tricks’ also have their drawbacks, for example by then making it more difficult to recycle the packaging.

If we are to continue allowing food packaging to contain recovered paper, consumer advisors are demanding that printing inks containing mineral oils must be replaced by ones that are not harmful to health, such as those based on vegetable oils. Otherwise packaging that is harmless in this respect should be used for foodstuffs.

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