Material Health in Packaging: Keeping Consumers Safe While Building Brand Loyalty

October 31, 2017

At SPC Advance 2017, a panel of professionals provided insights on how companies might approach the topic of material health as it relates to their packaging material, in order to assure legal compliance, keep consumers safe, and build brand loyalty.

When companies think about the safety of the chemicals present in their packaging, their first thought may be to ensure that they are complying with legal requirements – particularly for food contact packaging. Pamela Langhorn from the law firm Keller and Heckman LLP provided insight on how companies can stay on the right side of the law.According to Langhorn,  companies must rely on assurance statements (e.g., FDA Guaranty Letters under Section 303(c), Declarations of Compliance, etc.) rather than marketing materials to determine whether a material complies with the applicable food contact regulations. In addition, companies should make factual statements regarding their materials based on what they actually know – for example, by sharing testing results or statements from suppliers, rather than making broad statements that their packaging is “free of” a certain chemical.

But compliance with food contact regulations is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to material health in packaging. In some jurisdictions or in cases of contaminants where new safety information is emerging, regulatory requirements may not keep up with safety concerns. Also, migration into food is not the only way consumers are exposed to chemicals in packaging – for example, they might be exposed via dermal contact with a package. Further, consumers may have preconceived notions about a chemical even when its use complies with regulatory requirements, especially in light of growing consumer consciousness of emerging contaminants. To avoid risking damage to brand reputation and to stay ahead of upcoming regulations or potential consumer concerns, brands should consider taking a proactive approach to material health in their packaging.

In addition to impacts on consumers during the use phase, the chemicals in a package can also affect the potential for material recovery at the end of its useful life, and can continue to have health effects in subsequent applications. Persistent chemicals used in packaging, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) sometimes used for grease and water resistance in fiber-based packaging, don’t break down in the environment or in the recovery process (recycling or composting). As a result, these materials could contaminate recycled or composted output, resulting in exposures to people who may have never handled the original package. As Paul Schutes of the Recycled Paperboard Alliance and Recycled Paperboard Technical Association pointed out, recycled fiber can be used for food contact packaging applications; however, careful testing and assessment of potential contaminants is required to ensure that contaminants from prior uses or handling of the fiber don’t result in health risks. In order to design packaging for recovery, careful consideration should be given to the materials used, to ensure they don’t interfere with either recovery through the recycling stream or via composting.

The good news is that there are many alternative chemistries that can be substituted for chemicals of concern in packaging. When finding substitutes, it’s important to think about the application, including the product type (e.g., whether food contact regulations apply or if the materials used in the package could result in degradation of the product), the conditions of use (e.g., whether it will be used for hot fill or needs to stand up to in-package treatment of the product), and end of life (e.g., whether the package will be recycled or composted).

As an example, many companies are looking to phase out the use of PFAS in packaging materials, due in part to recent media and NGO attention. Wayne Huttle of Westrock noted that some PFAS-free substitutes meet certain performance requirements, such as water resistance or grease resistance, but may not be suitable for all applications. For example, a polyethylene coating on paperboard might provide the necessary grease resistance, but would be unsuitable for use in, say, a pizza box, since it would retain moisture and result in a soggy pizza. Other options may allow steam to vent, or may be suitable for compostable applications. To select the most appropriate alternative, companies need to consider all their requirements, and also need to ensure that their new alternative doesn’t present new health and safety concerns.

Jeffrey Fitzpatrick-Stillwell of McDonald’s outlined how his brand has managed this issue for their foodservice packaging. With their partner, HAVI Global Solutions, they have established a product stewardship framework that incorporates product raw material transparency, a assessment and prioritization of food safety risks for food contact packaging, product testing as required, management of specifications, proactive discussion of emerging issues, a supplier qualification process, and review and qualification of all materials used in packaging. In taking this approach, their goal is to not only manage the materials currently used in packaging and comply with regulatory requirements, but to stay ahead of emerging issues and keep the confidence of their customers.

Though the broader issues around material health may be unfamiliar territory to many in the packaging sector, these topics are getting increasing attention from consumers, NGOs, and the media. Compliance with food contact regulations is essential when they apply, but companies that want to ensure their customer’s confidence and design their packaging for recovery can go further, by proactively assessing the materials used in their packaging and selecting alternatives that meet their performance requirements without compromising the value of their brand, their customers’ health, or the ability of their packaging to be recovered.