Sustainable Packaging Is Safe Packaging

By Jaan Koel

There are strong forces at play encouraging advancement of food safety on one hand, and sustainable packaging on the other.

On the food safety front, for instance, the inordinate rise of food borne illness and daily food recalls has compelled governments to pass new legislation to improve traceability and transparency in food manufacturing.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the U.S.A., and the Safe Food for Canadians Act are examples.

Also, retailers wanting greater harmonization of existing food safety standards, and a way to reduce audit fatigue in verifying producer compliance, created a common benchmarking system with the launch of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) in 2000.  Thousands of producers across the globe are now registered with GFSI.

Meanwhile, on the packaging front, governments have been passing laws and regulations to promote sustainable packaging. Much of the focus has been on minimizing packaging waste through reduction and recycling, both as a means to conserve natural resources and to minimize landfill and litter.

Packaging is an integral part of food. In fact, some experts even go as far as to consider it an “ingredient.” On one hand, it’s being asked to tow the line on food safety; on the other it’s being asked to become more sustainable by slimming down, becoming more recycled, and creating less waste.

This presents industry with a tall order. “If you’re in the food packaging industry or in food production, it would be very smart to get ahead of the game and envision your environmental stewardship plan so it’s consistent with where things are going in food safety,” says Guy Crittenden, Editor of Solid Waste and Recycling magazine in Toronto, ON.  “Otherwise you could find yourself not just offside, but also having to spend more because you didn’t get it right the first time.”

He says that doing right by the environment while doing right by food safety is not so easy, or as common as it should be, and that industry is finding it difficult to comply with regulations that sometimes seem contradictory. “These days, I think certain categories are still very challenged environmentally, particularly plastics,” he notes.

At the same time, he’s the first to admit certain plastics do a great job in promoting hygiene and safety. Not only in wrapping and transporting food, such as meat, but also in distributing and administering pharmaceuticals. But there are disconnects here and in general. 

A large percentage of plastics, for instance, still end up as landfill or litter to the point where film and used water bottles have created an enormous “island” of floating waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is bigger than Texas, and growing.  Meanwhile, the well-intentioned practice of reusing plastic water bottles rather than throwing them out seemed a good idea until the University of Saskatchewan, in 2009, found bacteria levels in the refilled bottles were high enough to have shut down a municipal water supply or at the very least resulted in a boil-water order. 

Perhaps the ultimate sustainable packaging is no packaging at all. But feasible opportunities are rare. “Buying bulk food is an example,” says Crittenden. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Not perfect, no doubt, refers to questions such as how often are bins and scoops washed? What’s the risk of disease or infection being spread by people touching food with their hands?  How old and edible is the food at the bottom of the bin?

Bioplastics are one area where sustainable packaging and food safety seem well connected. Bioplastics are made from renewable plant material rather than oil.  They’re still in their infancy, but already there are several wins.  Coke’s “Plant Bottle,” for instance, uses 30% polyethylene terephthalate (PET) from plant sources and can be recycled with regular PET.  The company is determined to increase to 100%. 

Tetra Pak cartons, which are made mostly of paper, are already 70% renewable. In Brazil, Tetra Pak went to 100% renewable through a switch to film made from sugar cane instead of petroleum. Recently, the company announced it intends to go global with this.    

One of the latest things to emerge is fast food trays made from bamboo. One organization that makes them claims its products biodegrade in 180 days and are safe enough to eat.

And in each of these cases, food safety has been accounted for.

Though food safety and sustainable packaging are two different things that may seem at odds at times, food brings them together. As do two of the current GFSI-recognized food safety standards: IFS with IFS PACsecure, and BRC with BRC/IOP Global Standard for Packaging and Packaging Materials. Both packaging standards provide guidelines for producers looking to verify that the packaging materials and processes they are using are safe for food. For the increasing number of producers on the lookout for ways to make their packaging more sustainable, these standards can help shed light on how to go about doing this without compromising the safety of the food they produce and sell.

About the Author

Jaan Koel is a respected food safety writer with a substantial portfolio developed over many years of front line writing experience.He began contributing to GFSR five years ago and is a regular contributor of other industry leading business-to-business publications.Aside from his expertise in the area of article writing, he has developed a strong credibility writing in the areas of corporate communications, public relations, government communications and marketing.

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