Government Regulation of Food Packaging (current regulations in EU and USA)

by Eric Stefan Kandelin Koons on May 07, 2019

Government regulation in the food packaging industry serves to protect consumer’s interests and health. The downside is that it can also stifle industry growth if there is too much regulation in place. Regulation by both the EU and FDA covers packaging manufacturing practices, banned substances, food contamination, and material specific policies. The FDA is often seen as less restrictive than the EU because it has faster approval times and allows for a less restrictive packaging material designation known as “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). Regulation is important because when food packaging fails it can lead to bacteria growth and human health problems.

Government regulation is typically a point of discussion in most industries. Some people see them as a necessity to protect consumers and others see them as a hindrance to growth. This is also the case in the packaging industry and particularly in regards to food and other perishable products. Regulations for perishables are particularly stringent because perishables have a high risk of spoiling. The shelf life of  perishables varies greatly based on the type of product and storage method. Fresh foods have the shortest shelf life, with fresh meat lasting for a maximum of 5 days when refrigerated and 4 months when frozen. Fruit and vegetables last a bit longer and vary based on type, but range from 2 days after picking up to 8 months. Dry perishables last longer that vegetables, with items in plastic bags, such as potato chips, being okay for up to 8 months. The longest lasting types of perishables are typically canned goods and the FDA recommends a maximum shelf life of 5 years [1,2]. These shelf lives are all based on ideal storage conditions, like moderate temperature and moisture. Government regulation is used to make sure packaging meets the standards required for perishables to have these shelf lives. If packaging fails it can have dire consequences for consumers.

Government regulation in the EU falls into a few broad categories, which are: what can come into contact with food, manufacturing practices, banned substances, and material specific regulation. Basic requirements in the EU state that packaging should prevent contact between the product and any outside materials. Outside materials are anything that are not originally sealed in the package, such as bacteria, dust, or air. Manufacturing practices covers all aspects of manufacturing, from the correct sealing of containers to cleanliness of production factories. This is crucial because if contamination is sealed inside of a container it can be challenging for consumers to realize that there is a problem. Regulation on banned substances prevents potentially toxic or negative materials being used in packaging. An example is restricting the use of Bisphenol A in infant feeding bottles because studies have found it can reduce the function of the endocrine system. Lastly, regulation of specific materials covers health and contamination issues with individual material types. This is implemented for a wide variety of materials, but one example is with ceramics. Regulation provides limits for lead and cadmium used in their production, which can be toxic to humans in high concentrations [3,4].

In the USA food packaging regulation is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA uses similar guidelines as the EU, but is generally considered less restrictive. Often materials and new packaging techniques are approved by the FDA before the EU because of shorter review times. Additionally, the FDA provides a designation of “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). This designation is given to materials that go through a less stringent review process. This process requires that companies only provide the summary of a study to verify that their product is safe. The FDA makes a decision by only viewing the study summary and not the original data from the study [5]. People argue that this often means the FDA sides with the summary provided and doesn’t make their own decision based on the hard biological and chemical data. Even with this designation the FDA does provide important government oversight in the USA.

We need packaging regulations for many reasons and with perishables the stakes can be very high. When packaging fails foods, cosmetics, and other goods can become tainted and possibly harmful for human consumption. The most common issue from failed packaging in perishables is bacteria growth. When outside air comes into contact with perishables it can cause harmful, sometimes deadly, strains of bacteria to develop. Another issue is when the packaging material itself is tainted with harmful chemicals. Over time the negative chemicals can leach into the item being stored and lead to a host of problems [6,7]. In a single product recall in 2010 28 million boxes of cereal were discarded due to contaminated packaging. The packaging had an extraordinarily high concentration of Methylnaphthalene, which caused nausea and vomiting in many people who ate the cereal [8]. This is a relatively mild consequence compared to more deadly bacteria like E. Coli.

It is always a challenge to find the correct balance of government regulation. Regulation usually creates larger costs for packaging producers,  protects the public from harm. Because of this packaging regulation changes often and in small ways. It is always a work in progress and will likely continue to fluctuate for the foreseeable future.



[1] "A shelf life guide to the foods in your fridge (2016)", by TJ Ryan. 

[2] "Our Food: Packaging & Public Health (2012)", by Luz Claudio.

[3] "Food contact materials - legislation" (retrieved April 2019), by European Commission.

[4]"Food Packaging Regulation in Europe (2013)" , by Charlotte Wagner.

[5] "Food Packaging Regulation in the US (2013)", by Charlotte Wagner.

[6]  "Contamination in Food from Packaging Material (2000)", by Lau OW and Wong SKA.

[7]  "Food Toxicity: Contamination Sources, Health Implications And Prevention (2017)", by Abdul Majeed.

[8] "Kellogg’s explains massive cereal recall (2010)" , by Aaron Sarno.

Topics: Caviar Packaging, Chocolates , Biscuits and Confectionery packaging, Tea, Coffee and Spices

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