In recent years, the media has highlighted multiple examples of food being contaminated by what we call ‘food contact materials’ (FCMs). This definition includes packaging or any materials that can come into contact with food during its life cycle. Examples of contamination include bisphenol A and phthalates from plastic packaging and containers, primary aromatic amines from nylon kitchenware and formaldehyde from melamine kitchenware.
In all of these examples the chemical of concern is known to have been used in the production of the material. In the world of FCM testing, these are what are referred to as intentionally added substances (IAS) and can include monomers, catalysts, solvents, suspension media and other additives. These are the ‘knowns’ for which the level of their concentration in the packaged food must be determined to certify the FCM as safe for use.
However, there is another category of ‘unknown’ contaminants, or non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), which can also present risk. NIAS as well as IAS have the potential to transfer from the FCM into food and so present a consumer safety risk.
NIAS can include a whole host of compounds such as isomers, impurities, reaction products and breakdown products. All these compounds must be taken into consideration for a rigorous safety assessment and approval for use of any FCM. This must seem a daunting prospect for the manufacturers of such materials, but the potential impact upon human health, if they are not considered, cannot be ignored.
That is why analysis for NIAS is so important. This is conducted using a range of complementary, highly sensitive analytical techniques deployed in a non-targeted manner to provide a comprehensive chemical ‘fingerprint’ of these unknowns. This, along with the information on IAS, can then be used to carry out the safety assessment of the material.
No article on the subject of FCM would be complete without mention of the novel or bio-based materials entering global food packaging markets. A recent review carried out by Fera, surveying the potential risks and other unintended consequences of replacing fossil fuel-based FCMs with bio-based FCMs, found that limited research has been undertaken into the safety of bio-based materials derived from agri-food by-products for use in food contact applications and the associated risks to the consumer.
As we seek to develop and deploy higher volumes of novel bio-based packaging materials, the need for rigorous NIAS testing is required to ensure those new materials meet regulatory compliance and are safe for use.