Paper and corrugated board can, of course, be used for both bulk and retail packaging, as it has been for decades, offering benefits that include strength, cost-effectiveness, convenience and excellent branding options.
Food safety in packaging is, however, high on the agenda, especially since a recent outbreak of EHEC, a strain of E. coli, in Europe, which led to both manufacturers and retailers taking a closer look at possible sources of contamination.
In the case of E. coli, corrugated board and packaging papers are manufactured at such high temperatures that contamination is simply not possible. E. coli bacteria flourish in an environment characterised by temperatures between 25°C and 40°C, and require sufficient moisture to survive. They are unable to survive once temperatures exceed 70°C.
That board and papers used for packaging purposes are produced at temperatures of up to 200°C and, together with the fact that each package is used only once, effectively eliminates the risk of paper packaging, itself, being a source of food contamination. The same conditions apply during the recycling of food-grade paper packaging, so even if recycled fibre is used there is no risk of E. coli contamination.
Corrugated board, manufactured by combining layers of paper in a specific structure that gives the packaging its lightness and strength, offers an efficient solution for a completely safe food logistics chain.
The food safety risk arises in the methodologies employed by certain manufacturers when using recycled packaging materials, as well as in the type of chemicals used in packaging for products such as microwave popcorn, fast-food wrappers, pizza and other packaged foods.
‘An example of this is a new study that claims chemicals used in the linings of some paper packaging is leaching into foods and causing human blood contamination,’ comments Silvana Dimitrov, marketing manager: retail and industrial, Sappi Paper & Paper Packaging.
The results of this study, conducted by scientists at Toronto University in Canada, suggest that PAPs (polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters) present in grease-proofing agents, in some food contact materials, is one source of human exposure to PFCAs (perfluorinated carboxylic acids). PFCAs are widely used to make non-stick and water- and stain-repellent products, ranging from kitchen pans to clothing and food packaging, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has called for more data on the presence of these chemicals in food products, particularly in convenience foods.
‘This is an important discovery,’ explains Silvana, ‘as it indicates that both converters and end users need to be alert to risks of this nature.’
‘In this case,’ Silvana continues, ‘Sappi’s range of specially-engineered Resilio greaseproof papers contains no traces of PFCAs, complies with all Department of Health regulations, and is safe to use in direct food packaging applications. Resilio has been carefully developed in association with end users such as Nando’s, Primi Piatti, Pick n Pay and Woolworths, all of which apply stringent health and safety standards in every aspect of their businesses.’
‘Perhaps of greater risk is the use of recycled fibre in direct food content packaging, as this remains largely unregulated,’ she adds.
The risk with using recycled paper in food packaging arises from using products that contain recycled fibre from unknown or unverifiable sources. Only recently has it been established that there is a risk of mineral oil migration from recycled paper which contains remnants of printing inks and other additives like adhesives. This increases the longer the product it contains is stored or is displayed on supermarket shelves.
While the risk is from exposure over a long period of time, and while mineral oil migration should not affect people eating a balanced diet, there is always good reason to err on the side of safety.
To mitigate against mineral oil migration, Sappi does not use recycled fibre in the manufacture of its Resilio product range, and does not recommend the use of recycled fibre from unknown sources in food packaging.
Responsible manufacturers and retailers do not to use food-contact papers that contain recycled fibre from unverified sources. Nevertheless, plenty of cheap imports contain recycled fibre which is either not declared as part of the content, or cannot be confirmed to be from a safe source. This is something food manufacturers and retailers need to bear in mind when making their packaging choices. They should always ask their packaging suppliers to certify packaging for food contact.
To ensure food safety, one of the best options is to select paper packaging made only from virgin fibre. This is especially the case where there’s direct contact between the packaging and grease-releasing foods, and where the potential for migration of contamination between packaging and food is high. Another option is to use an inner bag, although this adds to the cost of production. The third option, of course, is to verify the source of paper with recycled content to eliminate the risk of mineral oil migration into food products.
‘We develop our packaging solutions in consultation with end users, who are fully involved and informed throughout the development process,’ Silvana emphasises. ‘As a leading packaging paper manufacturer, we also aim to increase awareness about the safety of packaging at both brand owner and consumer level,’ she adds.
‘As demands of product warehousing, retailing and long-distance transportation change under the influence of increased market sophistication and globalisation, packaging requirements are changing too,’ she highlights.
Adding to this, Silvana notes that a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t cut it any longer. ‘Packaging has to meet the needs of producers, product owners and retailers with specialist requirements. The growing volume of packaging being used world-wide is also placing these suppliers under pressure to make the change to packaging materials that are fully sustainable, environmentally sound and, above all, safe.’
Brand owners as diverse as frozen food manufacturers, fruit exporters and fast-moving consumer goods producers are working with Sappi’s science and technology teams, at the Innovation Hub in Tshwane, to develop innovative packaging materials to meet their specific and evolving needs.
Citrus producers, for instance, need cost-effective corrugated cartons that are able to withstand high humidity and cyclic conditions, and to retain their strength throughout the supply chain. Sappi works closely with the Citrus Research Institute to make sure this need is met with maximum effectiveness and minimal environmental impact.
‘The fishing industry is also looking for alternatives, to the less environmentally-sound packaging many producers are still using, without compromising on features needed to transport fish and seafood safely and effectively,’ Silvana comments.
As far as food-contact grades are concerned, Sappi’s Resilio range was specifically developed to meet the needs of the convenience food industry. These greaseproof papers are designed to be fully recyclable and to meet stringent requirements in terms of grease resistance and convenience. This means they are strong, have high portability, offer superior grease resistance and can be used quite safely in microwave ovens. Similarly, they can be used without any qualm for take-out applications such as pizza and burger boxes.
‘With products like these we’re hoping to start a revolution that will see paper take its rightful place as the packaging medium of the future and, it goes without saying, that food safety is always at the top of the list for Sappi,’ Silvana concludes.
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