Carcinogens in Food Packaging

Dr. Jane Muncke PhD Managing Director Food Packaging Forum Foundation Zurich, Interview with:
Dr. Jane Muncke PhD
Managing Director
Food Packaging Forum Foundation
Zurich, Switzerland What are the main conclusions from your work?

Answer: Food packaging is a relevant, but still under-recognized source of chemical contamination in foods. Everybody is exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis, but we have very little understanding of the actual health effects caused by this chronic exposure source. We propose that epidemiological research tackles chemical exposures from food packaging as a new and highly relevant exposure source. Epidemiologist have played crucial roles in advancing understanding of health issues, for example cardiovascular disease caused by fine particulate air pollution. Through their work they have encouraged toxicologists to ask different questions, thereby supporting the generation of critical knowledge and, essentially, enabling prevention. Which insights were most unexpected to you?

Answer: We were surprised to find known carcinogens being authorized for the use in food contact materials. As such, the FDA lists asbestos fiber as indirect food additive for the use in rubbers intended for food contact applications. This means that its use is, at least in theory, completely legal in the US. Another chemical of concern is formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen which is used as monomer in melamine formaldehyde tableware. Formaldehyde is also a non-intentionally added substance leaching from plastic soda bottles. Considering how many people consume beverages from such containers on a daily basis we have to assume that exposures to formaldehyde at low levels affect the entire population. What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Answer: As a consumer, we can make choices to eat as many fresh, unprocessed, organic and, if possible, unpackaged foods as possible—a recommendation many doctors most likely make already. Furthermore, it is essential to avoid potentially harmful chemical exposures especially during pregnancy, for example arising from increased chemical leaching into hot foods. However, our influence as consumers is unfortunately limited, because we do not know how foods were stored or processed before they reach the stores. And, we do not always have a choice what kind of foods we eat, due to availability, time or budget restrictions. What we need most therefore are chemical regulations that are informed by the most current scientific understanding, with prevention of chronic diseases as main target. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of your work?

Answer: We hope to inspire epidemiologists to integrate knowledge about chemical exposures from food packaging in their studies. Such exposures are a relatively discrete and measurable route of exposure that would lend itself for amending existing methods, like food frequency questionnaires, dietary intake records or 24h recalls. Ideally, such efforts would be supplemented by biomonitoring for specific target compounds. Consumer behavior at home may be another interesting area of research, i.e. understanding in what container types foods are stored and reheated.


Food packaging and migration of food contact materials: will epidemiologists
rise to the neotoxic challenge?
Published Feb 19 2014


Last Updated on February 19, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD