During May and into June, a deadly strain of Escherichia coli sickened more than 2000 persons in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Eventually, raw bean and seed sprouts were identified as the likely source of the outbreak, but various produce were suspected until then.
In response to fears about the outbreak, the European Federation of Corrugated Board manufacturers (FEFCO) issued assurances that corrugated packaging was and is clean, hygienic, and free of E. coli, at least when manufactured. FEFCO notes that E. coli can not survive at temperatures above 70°C, but that corrugated board is heated beyond 100°C three times during manufacture of the paper and twice during conversion to board.
At the same time, a study concerning the use of recycled paperboard in food packaging was being published, and the news was less positive. The study by researchers in Zurich, Switzerland, found that mineral inks from recycled paper used to make packaging could be absorbed beyond acceptable levels by food in the packaging.
As noted in one press release, “The research showed that even if food was contained in clean paperboard boxes from fresh fibres, printed with inks free of mineral oil and wrapped into a polyethylene film (also free of mineral oil); mineral oils from the corrugated card transport box fare exceeded the limit.”
The problem with mineral oils is that over time, exposure might cause organ damage and cancer, at least in rats.
Possible steps to address the problem include using much cleaner material to produce food contact packaging or package the food within a barrier, such as aluminum, that could prevent absorption of gases from mineral oils.
The German government, for which the study was conducted, is reported to be asking manufacturers to take immediate action to limit mineral oils in food contact packaging and might set mandatory limits.
Other countries suggest more study might be needed, but at least one food distributor is looking to switch to packaging made from virgin fiber.
Recycling is a good thing. Safely delivering food to consumers also is a good thing. As with other contaminants, papermakers are now challenged to address concerns about mineral oils and to develop solutions that simply achieve what consumers take for granted – safe delivery of packaged food.