Underregulated chemicals used to make food packaging are a business risk. Here’s how to avoid it.

Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was called out for falling short of its mandate to protect consumer health. The investigation exposes the agency’s long track record of failing to effectively act in a timely manner on several food safety issues, including heavy metals in baby food and foodborne illnesses from contaminated produce. 

These are not isolated problems. FDA has a history of failing to address dangerous chemicals in food despite acknowledging the potential for harm, from phthalates, to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to toxic metals like lead in food. In the absence of strong FDA oversight, companies need to step up. Ensuring your products are safe is good for business—reinforcing investor, retailer and consumer confidence while building brand trust and reducing liability.

A different kind of food poisoning: Toxic chemicals lurking in food packaging

Companies are well aware of the potential impact pathogens like E. coli compromising food safety can have on their reputation and bottom line. For restaurants and food brands, a foodborne illness outbreak can cost millions in lost sales, reverse logistics, fines, litigation, and brand damage. Just the temporary shutdown of two packaging facilities following Listeria contamination of prepackaged salads cost Dole between $15 and $25 million. 

But many companies are overlooking an equally damaging risk: The presence of toxic chemicals used in food packaging and manufacturing. Consumers expect and demand safety. There is a growing awareness of toxic chemicals in our everyday food and food packaging. For companies that fail to address toxic chemicals in their products, the reputational and financial repercussions are high. FDA’s relatively weak oversight of chemicals used in food packaging and manufacturing, which can leach out into food products, leaves companies vulnerable to costly litigation, frantic supply chain overhauls and reputational risks. 

Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of popular chains like Burger King and Popeyes, received a failing grade on toxic chemicals in Mind the Store’s Retailer Report Card multiple years in a row and third-party testing revealed PFAS in its fast food packaging. Pressured from this unflattering spotlight, the company announced in March 2022 a commitment to phasing out added PFAS in all guest-facing packaging by 2025 or earlier.     

There are three main reasons potentially harmful chemicals get into food packaging: They are directly added to packaging for functionality purposes, say to make it water resistant; they unintentionally wind up in the packaging from sources earlier in the manufacturing process, like as a processing aid or a byproduct of a raw material used to form plastic bottles or lubricate machinery used during production; or, from contaminated recycled materials that were used to make new packaging.

Become an early adopter of safer food packaging practices today

Companies increasingly recognize the business benefits that come with proactively removing toxic chemicals from food packaging. A number of grocers and fast food chains have made statements about removing certain PFAS from their final food packaging. At the same time, we’re seeing increased momentum at the state level to regulate the use of toxic chemicals in food packaging. It’s in a company’s best interest to get ahead of these regulations rather than playing catch up down the road. 

Here are three guaranteed ways companies can put safer products on store shelves.

  1. Commit to a list of chemicals to avoid and replace with safer alternatives. Companies must commit to eliminate harmful chemicals in food packaging packaging and food handling equipment where the potential health impacts from their migration into food raises serious concerns. But setting goals in a vacuum is not enough: Companies must do the work needed to turn these pledges into progress. Cooperation with stakeholders in the value chain is critical to ensure that alternatives are verified to be safer than the chemicals they are replacing.
  2. Demand transparency from your suppliers. From sourcing raw materials to final packaging, harmful chemicals can enter food packaging at many touchpoints. Possible sources include cleaning solutions used on processing equipment, bulk containers or holding bins, and chemical additives in final packaging. Effective elimination of harmful chemicals begins by demanding visibility into the chemicals used by packaging and equipment suppliers. One way to facilitate dialogue in your value chain is to encourage your suppliers to assess their materials using the new Understand Packaging (UP) Scorecard and share their results.  
  3. Test packaging and food handling equipment for chemicals of concern. Testing products and food contact materials for harmful chemicals is one way to identify where issues may exist in your portfolio, hold your suppliers accountable, and to ensure your progress towards a commitment to safer food.

Companies must act on this opportunity to fill the current leadership void and ensure safe food for all consumers.

Cassie Huang,
Consumer Health