As the world looks to rebuild after COVID, we need to change our approach to the environment, particularly the chemicals and single-use plastics involved in food packaging, writes Frédérique Ries.
Frédérique Ries is a Belgian MEP and vice-chair of the Renew Group. She sits on several committees, including the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.
COVID-19 has hit all countries hard, especially in the European Union, but its impact has been the hardest on those populations that were already vulnerable, who are more exposed to the disease, less likely to have access to quality health care services.
“Building a fairer, healthier world for everyone” – the theme of this year’s World Health Day – is entirely appropriate.
We need to change many things in our approach to nature, but also in our mindsets, to focus on prevention, which is always a more effective policy than reaction and short-termism.
A typical example is the over-presence of harmful chemicals in our daily lives and the fact in particular that our food comes into contact with many hazardous substances.
There is a wide body of literature on the impacts of harmful chemicals on human health. Many are recognised by the scientific community to interfere with the endocrine system, impair development and impact our nervous and immune systems.
Scientists and NGOs have raised the alarm on the need to remove these chemicals from consumers products and notably food packaging. Indeed, one of the most common ways consumers are exposed to harmful chemicals is through food and beverage, and the products we use to package, store and cook food.
In Europe, over 8,000 chemicals are used in the manufacture of food contact materials, including food packaging, and many have not been adequately tested for toxicity. Regarding plastic packaging specifically, 4,000 chemicals are potentially present and 906 likely present in plastic packaging.
Among those 906 chemicals, 63 were identified as being particularly hazardous for human health.
Last year, I participated in the Plastics in the Spotlight project, which brought together public figures across Europe to show how we are all exposed to harmful chemicals in our daily lives, notably through food packaging. Chemicals contained in food packaging can migrate to the food and end up in our bodies, and some of those chemicals are harmful.
I decided to contribute to this project because the way we currently package our food, mainly through single-use (plastic) packaging, is not only threatening our environment and ecosystems, it is also threatening our health.
And this is completely avoidable! I was shocked and saddened to see that, on average, the project participants were found to have 20.5 of the 28 chemicals analysed present in their bodies!
With the adoption of the Single-Use Plastics Directive, a file I had the opportunity to lead for the European Parliament, the EU made significant progress to move away from wasteful and polluting single-use plastics. Yet, further measures are urgently needed to ensure food packaging is sustainable and safe.
The EU chemicals legislation REACH is the strongest such legislation in the world. Adopted in 2006, it was one of the most Homeric battles I have experienced in the European Parliament, where I have sat since 1999 without interruption.
Yet, currently, chemicals restricted under REACH are still allowed to be used in food packaging and other food contact materials (FCM), including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenols and phthalates. This legislation is outdated and in need of reform.
The European Parliament has, on several occasions, called for a strong revision of the FCM legislation, last time in its resolution of 10 July 2020 on the “Chemicals strategy for sustainability”, highlighting that the current legislation is insufficient to guarantee a high and common level of protection of consumers across the EU.
The ball is now in the Commission’s court and the upcoming revision of the legislative framework on FCM (European Commission proposal expected at the end of 2022) provides an opportunity to ensure that any food packaging put on the market is safe and circular for the sake of the planet and human health.
As the EU is building back better, it needs to act to phase out hazardous chemicals from products and packaging as a priority. This is a duty we must not take lightly.