Food Law News - EU - 2004

EP Daily Notebook, 31 March 2004

PACKAGING - European Parliament votes on improved rules on food packaging

Report on the proposal for a European Parliament and Council regulation on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food

The quality of what we eat depends not only on the food itself but also on the packaging, which often leaves its traces on the food it contains. As part of moves to protect consumer health and remove obstacles to trade within Europe, while also creating a legal framework for technological advances in food packaging, Parliament adopted on Wednesday a first reading report by Astrid THORS (ELDR, FIN) on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. The text is the result of a broad compromise between the Parliament and Council. It sets conditions which must be met by products and materials coming into direct or indirect contact with food which is to be put on the market.

These issues are currently governed by a directive dating from 1989. The new framework regulation aims to protect consumers' interests and at the same time reflect the rapid changes in technology. Research and industry have made major progress on this front: "active" and "intelligent" packaging has been introduced, but European legislation has not always kept track with this evolution. The new regulation defines "active" packaging as packaging developed to interact with food to improve quality and keep it fresh for longer; "intelligent" packaging is used to give information to the consumer on the current condition of the food. MEPs have established specific measures for these types of materials and objects. Other new materials and products (listed in an annex to the regulation) are also covered, including with regard to specific national rules. Parliament has dealt with the conditions under which interaction between an active product and the food itself will be allowed. Active and intelligent material, if used inappropriately, could mislead consumers, and MEPs want to protect against this.

MEPs want specific provisions ensuring traceability of objects which remain in contact with food, notably to allow a more effective response if product withdrawal is necessary. This is one of the aims of proper labelling: from now on all materials and articles intended to be in contact with food must be labelled "suitable for food contact" or carry a special food contact symbol, unless its own name already makes that clear (e.g. 'coffee pot') or if by its nature such a use can be "reasonably" expected. MEPs want the information on the product to be worded in a language that can be easily understood by consumers. This must be their own language - plus possibly other EU languages - otherwise the product would not be officially authorised to go on sale.

On the question of authorisation, MEPs have approved the current principle of positive lists of approved substances and materials, meaning that a material is not deemed to be approved merely because it has not been explicitly banned. Authorisations are the subject of specific rules, whether for a substance, a material, an object or a procedure. New procedures for placing materials on the market and evaluating them in terms of health safety are set out, including in particular procedures for recycled material.

A Member State observing that a substance initially thought to be in conformity with the rules in fact presents a risk to public health will be able to suspend the authorisation for that product on its territory.

Finally, Parliament completed the text by insisting on the need to take the needs of developing countries into account.

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