Is All Food Packaging Safe? The Legal Chemicals That Are Contaminating Your Food

April 29, 2020

Our blog deals with every topic to do with food—– the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Today we’re touching on an ugly subject. That is, legal chemicals in food packaging. Specifically, we’ll be chatting about chemicals that are forbidden by EU law, but somehow still managed to pass the FDA product approval process in the US. 

Want to know what chemicals are currently contaminating your favorite takeaway? Scroll down for the nitty-gritty. 

What’s the FDA’s Approval Process? 

In the US, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is the official organization for product approval. The FDA website is even classified as an official US government website. Nothing enters the US without first being scrutinized by the FDA— and passing the administration’s product approval process is key.

In light of the recent news that US food packaging contains 154 hazardous chemicals, the FDA’s process might not be as watertight as we first thought. Despite the administration’s high-profile presence, expert commentary on drugs and food and its advocation from the US government, plenty of recent news articles have surfaced that serve to question the FDA’s legitimacy. 

The FDA claims that for a product to get a green stamp of approval, the administration must determine the product on trial as safe and effective. The FDA also bases its decision on whether “the benefits to users will outweigh its risks.”

Is all food packaging safe? If we went off the FDA’s word, the answer would most likely be yes. However, we urge you to ask yourself some questions after learning about the potential dangers of some of America’s legal chemicals and see if you still trust the FDA’s judgment. 

The Benefits, Risks, and Safety of Food Packaging 

Food containers are a simple yet relatively common product— and their popularity is measured by the constant criticism of food packaging’s impact on environmental waste. According to the NRDC — an American earth safeguarding charity—– food and beverage packaging is a prime source of the estimated 269,000 tonnes of plastic pollution. Plastic is the biggest contributor to landfill waste, and although this material is a convenient way to mass-produce items like food packaging, it’s packed full to the brim with potentially harmful chemicals.  

As you’ll know, food packaging has a pretty simple benefit— the storage of food. But is this a necessary benefit? Most people would say no, and it’s a topic that’s widely debated — again because of the environmental impact of packaging. We can see where The Guardian is coming from when they write about the ridiculousness of supermarket packaging. After all, fresh fruit and vegetables having their own natural, protective packaging. 

Yet, we can also see how plastic packaging can serve to preserve food and keep consumption hygienic. Even in environmentalism, this practice helps to minimize unnecessary food waste, suggesting when we think about food packaging, we should stop and think about the bigger picture. Plenty of authoritative sources argue this idea, urging others to think about the consequences of living completely package-less. 

Now you know the very clouded benefit of food packaging, what about its risks? Well, amongst the 154 chemicals that have slipped by the FDA’s test are two dangerous substances: Tributyltin and Perchlorate. While the names are impressive and could pass as villainous, you’ll be convinced of their bad nature after we break down their associated risks. 

Tributyltin — This pesky drug is linked to both breast cancer and poor fetal development. What’s worse, Tributyltin is difficult to spot in packaging as it’s often not listed as a source material. The compound was originally used for enhancing ship performance before it found its way into the packaging industry. 

Perchlorate — It turns out that this chemical has been tested in the US numerous times because of the risks it poses to human health, including reduction of hormone production in the thyroid gland. Despite our skepticism about it during several studies, Perchlorate is still completely legal for product use. The chemical is used in food packaging to control static electricity, but that doesn’t stop it from contaminating food and water. 

From these facts, the safety of American food packaging is unclear. And remember, we’ve only covered two of the 154 chemicals the EU forbids due to associated risks. While you might think enjoying a Chinese takeout on the sofa from a plastic container is only bad for your diet — it could be even worse for your overall health. 

How Can You Control Your Chemical Consumption?
If even the FDA is getting it wrong, then is there any hope for the rest of us? Maybe. 

There are a few actions you can take to avoid consuming harmful chemicals, which might lead to severe health conditions in the long run. Listen up: 

  • Avoid Plastic — It’s better to avoid plastic where you can. You should also get clued up on it, so you don’t get caught out. For example, polystyrene — often used for hot food containers — is a form of plastic (and a harmful one at that). Plastic doesn’t always mean transparent containers. 
  • Choose Sustainable Alternatives — There are plenty of environmental alternatives, whether you’re storing food at home or eating out. An obvious way to avoid chemicals in packaging is to store loose foods and grains in glass at home, so your pantry isn’t a breeding ground for contamination. What about if you want to have a sneaky cheat meal on the weekend? Make sure you’re picking up pizza from a responsible provider. If you do your research beforehand, there are plenty of fast-food providers with eco-friendly food packaging. Instead of using plastic, these vendors might choose to use renewable resources like paper or even sugar cane to solve storage issues. 
  • Watch Where You Shop — You need to cut your harmful packaging consumption at the source. It isn’t enough to buy a plastic-packed product and then remove the transparent sheath as the dirty work could already have been done. Chemicals contaminate food or drink when warm. This doesn’t just pose a problem when re-heating takeout food, as warm weather and long distribution journeys can mean the food is unsafe even before purchase. So, make an effort to shop in local farmers markets where food is fresh and sold without packaging in the first place. 

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