13 Oct 2017

Research details packaging chemicals found in food

8:58 am on 13 October 2017

Chemicals from plastic and paper packaging are leaching into some foods sold in New Zealand, new research shows.

The Ministry for Primary Industries said there were no food safety risks from the chemicals for consumers.

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Photo: 123rf

Samples from 74 packaged and takeaway foods showed chemicals from printing inks in 11 of those foods, including fresh meat and pizza, takeaway curries and muesli.

DETX, a potential carcinogen, was found in one tub of canola oil spread in quantities exceeding European guidelines, but scientists said the lifetime risk of someone eating enough of it to be dangerous was less than one in a million.

Phthalates - colourless, odourless chemicals used to soften plastic, which have been found to disrupt hormone production - were found in 15 of the 74 sampled foods.

Two results for the phthalates DEHP and DINP exceeded European guidelines - but Ministry acting manager for Food Risk Assessment, Andrew Pearson, said they were also too low to pose any threat to consumers.

"The levels in the diet are very, very low. We've taken a conservative approach - we've assumed consuming very high amounts of [these foods] over your whole lifetime and there are no food safety risks at these levels."

Dr Pearson said MPI's study fed into a wider programme that the Food Standards Australia New Zealand agency was doing to assess whether chemicals in food packaging presented any health and safety concerns.

It follows similar research in Australia last year, which found chemicals from food packaging were undetectable or well below international thresholds, although in one case a chemical from the phthalate family exceeded European Union guidelines by almost 350 percent.

The results did not reassure some food safety campaigners.

Alison White from the Safe Food Campaign said she was surprised that having found a carcinogenic chemical in one tub of canola oil spread, the Ministry did not carry out more sampling from that brand and others.

"How can they base the safety of the New Zealand public from a known carcinogen from two samples - one of which contained quite high levels - is a bit reprehensible in my opinion."

Ms White said it was also "disturbing" the Ministry was prepared to accept toddlers would be exposed to much higher levels of these chemicals than adults.

"Carcinogens have a much greater effect on young cells ... so we need to take a precautionary measure."

Packaging has an important role to play - retailer

Food retailers are already responding to consumer concerns about chemicals in their food.

The co-owner of Commonsense Organics, Marion Wood, said the company minimised the use of plastic packaging for both health and environmental reasons.

She said she would like to know more about how the tests were carried out, pointing out some chemicals designed to remain stable in a supermarket fridge for example could react quite differently when left in a hot car during the ride home.

"Did they test the chemicals as consumers are likely to be using them or as manufacturers designed them?"

Countdown Supermarkets announced last week they will be phasing out single use plastic bags by the end of next year and it's already ditched polystyrene meat trays in favour of recycled plastic.

Its spokesman, James Walker, said this was prompted by environmental concerns and he was not aware of any customer feedback about people being worried about chemicals leaching into their food.

Packaging itself had an important safety role to play, he said.

MPI's Andrew Pearson said this study brought the programme on behalf of Food Standards Australia New Zealand to an end and it had been decided no regulatory changes were needed in either country.

However, monitoring would continue as the need arose, he said.

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