As concerns about food safety grow, teams of researchers focus on testing different products and the packaging they are sold in. While this serves to protect consumer interests, very often they issue contradictory or inconclusive reports.
Some of these are seized on by the media spreading myths and misleading consumers. Benoît Lefebvre, Responsible for Regulatory Affairs at Elipso, the French plastic and flexible packaging association, and Luc Desoutter, Sustainability Officer at Sidel, discuss how confusion arises and how to prevent scaremongering and the spread of false information.
In recent years, consumers have received lots of inconsistent information regarding the safety of PET. What's the real story?
LD: The evidence shows that PET is completely safe. It's been in use for over 30 years with no side effects. Its safety has been confirmed by all the official food safety organisations, including the FDA, SFDA, ANSES and EFSA.
Why did the public hear a different story?
BL: The problems arose because incomplete scientific research was published and the media seized on some of the messages causing public fear.
LD: For example, PET was linked to Bisphenol A (BPA), when it quite clearly isn't. All the official agencies have made this clear. Unfortunately some NGOs got involved in pseudo-scientific debates, which only served to strengthen this link in the mind of the general public and cause concern about a material that is completely safe.
There has been heated debate around BPA in recent years. Has this affected PET?
BL: Yes, but not only PET. The link made between a large number of different materials and BPA placed these materials very wrongly in this debate. A few years ago, some inconclusive research was published showing health concerns around using BPA in beverage containers for babies. In spite of the introductory nature of the report, Health Canada proposed a ban on the sale and import of polycarbonate baby bottles containing BPA. The media seized on the story and concern among the general public spread like wildfire. However in September 2012, Health Canada finally concluded that current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses was not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and young children. But by then the damage was done and BPA was considered dangerous to health in the minds of consumers.
LD: The problem lies in the fact that very often research is released without it being made clear that it is only introductory. For example, in France in September 2011, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety released the first part of a report about the dangerous aspects of BPA. However, the risk depends entirely on the way we are exposed to the hazard; if there is no exposure there is no risk! The exposure topic was due to be covered in the second part of the report, to be released a few months later. So the first part of the report by itself was too tentative to be conclusive yet it produced a lot of simplistic media coverage, which misled consumers. Moreover, the second part of the French report about BPA has now been released and three out of the four effects which were identified in the first report have finally been judged as 'negligible' in this latest report. A 'moderate' level of confidence has been applied to the fourth effect. The European authority itself might release its own final conclusions on this topic and consultation is currently underway.
But how about the different international health organisations? Don't they step in to tell the correct side of the story?
BL: Yes, but often they are just as contradictory. For example, following the warning from Health Canada regarding BPA in baby bottles, the French government voted to ban production and marketing of baby bottles containing BPA: And this decision was taken in spite of a report from ANSES stating that there was no risk associated with using BPA in baby bottles. What's more the decision was taken without the involvement of EFSA. This is when emotion takes over from scientific facts.
Wasn't there also a false accusation about PET being carcinogenic?
LD: Yes, there was a doctor who claimed that bottles made of PET left in cars exposed to summer heat became carcinogenic. This was later proven to be a hoax. There has also been similar false information circulating about PET being bad for the environment. This is quite simply nonsense as PET is 100% recyclable. But unfortunately, the headlines created by sloppy media reporting stay with the general public. Getting the correct information out to the average consumer remains a challenge.
How can this sort of scaremongering be avoided?
BL: We need a strong, reputable health authority at European level that can expose poor science and stop public fear fanning unfounded concern. This would stop the distortion of facts and also make it easier to do business across European borders. Cooperation between national authorities and the European authority is more essential than ever.
LD: We've experienced that country-level authorities bow too easily to the pressure of alarmism and conspiracy.
But maintaining a strong European food safety authority would require serious additional resources. Do you think that in these times of austerity, it's realistic that this kind of investment could be found?
LD: You're right that it would require an investment. But with one entity that had a strong voice and the resources to review all research, it would be easier for the general public to get the right information. It would also mean that substances like PET could avoid being the subject of myths and scaremongering.
Do you think there's a reason to be concerned about the future of PET?
LD: Despite the confusion and fear that we've observed, we don't see a measurable impact on the PET business that keeps growing. This is down to the trust of consumers and the in-depth work done by professional organisations around the world, such as ELIPSO in France, Plastics Europe, ACC, IK, NAPCOR and many more who have contributed to debunking these myths.
Who's who in food safety
FDA - the US Food and Drug Administration
SFDA - the State Food and Drug Association, China
EFSA - the European Food Safety Association
ANSES - the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety
Elipso is the French Plastic and Flexible Packaging Association. Its members include plastics and packaging producers, recycling companies and logistics firms.