Packaging hit the headlines in March when the BBC broke a story that mineral oils found in recycled cartonboard packaging were finding their way into food and could cause cancer. Auntie had done an investigation, too, and found that cereal company Jordans had stopped using recycled cartonboard, apparently as a result of the research; other cereal makers, notably Kellogg’s and Weetabix, said they were looking into the issue and their packaging as a result.
The report had come from research by the Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zurich and was published in the journal European Food Research and Technology.
At the heart of the story was the claim that Swiss scientists had found that mineral oils, from the ink in recycled newspapers, had contaminated food sold in many cardboard cartons. Toxic mineral hydrocarbons were found in all foods packed either with or without an inner plastic bag. Exposure to mineral oils was linked to inflammation of internal organs and, the study claimed, cancer.
The story seemed to fly in the face of everything so many in the packaging industry were trying to do. Perhaps for the first time, recycling was the villain of the piece and using virgin fibre, rather than reprocessed material was being portrayed as the preferable option.
No need to panic
But there are gaps in the story that have not yet been filled. For a start, there appears to be little evidence that mineral oils – which are also found in products such as sun cream – are actually as dangerous as the headlines might have suggested.
The Food Standards Agency, for instance, immediately told people not to panic and said the evidence available did not amount to a food safety risk. It added that the Swiss researchers were unable to carry out a risk assessment because the data was incomplete.
The FSA is currently gathering information on the extent of the presence of mineral oils in food packaging on the UK market and more information will be available this summer.
Moreover – and contrary to the BBC’s report – a statement from Jordans to Packaging News said that its switch to using virgin cartonboard rather than recycled material had been made late last year and had had nothing to do with the report on mineral oils from Switzerland.
In addition, although the story broke in March, the report was not new. In fact, it was first published in 2010.
Nevertheless, it has been a key talking point across packaging in the last two months and while some are dismissing the issue as a passing scare, others believe it could have longer-lasting consequences.
Andy Barnetson, corrugated sector manager at the Confederation of Paper Industries, is one of those who has argued that the report should not affect the way brands buy their packaging. He says that the paper and board industry is taking steps to reduce the levels of mineral oil in its products, but points out that there is currently no clear regulatory guidance on the matter.
“Eliminating the root cause is the most sustainable option,” he says. “This can be done by phasing out the use of mineral oil based printing inks and chemicals in both packaging and printed papers. Such technology changes will take time. As a start, packaging companies are making commitments to use only mineral oil free inks for printing their packaging and, wherever possible, using recovered paper types with minimal mineral oil content.”
However, others believe the debate could work in their favour. Cartonboard producer M-real, for instance, says that the scare will inevitably increase demand for its virgin-fibre cartonboard, as consumers “start seeing even more clearly the benefits of pure raw materials for food safety”.
However, packaging consultant Terry Robins questions how any moves to virgin board will play out. “If all of the companies now using recycled switch to virgin will they still be making the same green claims as before? How much will it put up the price, if the retailers let them? Or how long before this all dies down and they gradually switch back to recycled board?”
Asia Pulp & Paper manager of European sustainability Liz Wilkes is another doubter, saying that the sheer volume of cardboard packaging used today makes a switch to certified virgin fibre packaging “very difficult because of the certification issues involved”.
Weetabix and Kellogg’s say they are still taking steps to reduce the amount of mineral oil in their packaging.
A Weetabix spokesman says it is working with its packaging suppliers to be able to source and to conduct trials on alternate materials that do not contain recycled newsprint.
He explains that the issue had been around for some time and that they were already “looking at the issue anyway”.
The German Federal Risk Assessment Authority, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and many food packaging companies are currently investigating the situation, and looking for solutions throughout the value chain. The opinion from EFSA is expected in September
FSA’s chief scientist Andrew Wadge concludes: “The bottom line is there really is no reason to panic about your morning muesli and I won’t be changing my daily porridge eating habit.”