The European Commission has put forward revised regulations on materials that come into contact with food. Among the proposed changes is a more modern approach to the principle that packaging materials should not interact with the food they contain. This, say supporters, would allow the introduction into the EU of 'active' and 'intelligent' packaging that, for example, prolongs shelf life or monitors and displays information about the freshness of food.
Recent technological developments have allowed the food industry to create 'active' packaging to prolong food quality and shelf life. Active packaging interacts with food to reduce oxygen levels or add flavourings or preservatives. So-called 'intelligent' packaging can monitor the food and transmit information on its quality.
At the moment this type of packaging cannot be introduced into the EU because existing legislation states that food contact materials should not trigger any chemical reactions which might change the food's taste, appearance, texture or smell or alter its chemical composition. This applies even if the changes are beneficial.
Fresh foods sometimes produce gas or moisture inside the packaging as they age naturally. This can encourage micro-organisms to grow. For example, oxygen can cause bread and pizza crusts to grow mould. It also causes vegetable oils to go rancid and makes other foods lose their flavour. Some types of active packaging contain oxygen scavengers which absorb the gas the food releases. It cuts down the risk of food poisoning and it also helps the food keep its flavour for longer.
Intelligent packaging can change colour to let the customer know how fresh the food is and show if the food has been spoiled because of a change in temperature during storage or a leak in the packaging.
The proposals would also set up traceability requirements so that materials coming into contact with food are identified at all stages of production and distribution. The proposals will now be examined by the European Parliament and the Council under the co-decision procedure.
Traceability is an important part of current EU food legislation as it sets out a system to identify and trace all stages of food production. This is an important safeguard in the event of any possible contamination. The proposed regulation applies the same principles to the production of food contact materials so businesses in the sector can identify where food contact materials and substances used in their manufacture have come from and where they have been supplied to.
The new regulation was prepared following broad consultation with the Member States as well as professional and consumer organisations. It will create a more efficient legal framework and a more transparent procedure for authorising new substances.
"EU legislation has to keep pace with advances in food packaging technology," said David Byrne, the EU health and consumer protection commissioner. "Active and intelligent packaging should be allowed in Europe, provided it complies with the principles of EU food safety law. This proposal also extends our 'farm to fork' approach to safety so that any materials clearly intended to come into contact with food can be identified and traced."
According to EU definitions, food contact materials are all items intended to touch food. This includes packaging such as plastic wrapping, and glass bottles as well as objects like coffee machines and soup spoons. The revised regulation also covers adhesives and printing inks.
The proposal will now be sent to the Council and to the European Parliament for a first reading in the co-decision procedure.