Food packaging has made it into the news for the second time in 2011, with the public backlash over the use of recycled paper in food products. The concern is not the paper, but the oils and inks that were used in the paper’s previous incarnation. Researchers in Zurich, Switzerland’s Food Safety Laboratory analyzed recycled packaging on over 119 products and found traces of chemicals that are harmful if they come into contact with the food inside the packaging. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s August 2006 release “Guidance for Industry: Use of Recycled Plastics in Food Packaging: Chemistry Considerations” can offer some tips for food processing plants.

Consider the new USFDA regulations.

In addition to plastic, the USFDA has issued statements and regulations for recycled paper meant for food contact. These statements have established acceptable contamination limits (safe amounts for human consumption), the types of contaminants to looks for, materials that are known to be free of other contaminants, as well as alternatives. For example, the recommended dietary concentration is 0.5 parts per billion, or 1.5 micrograms of the chemicals per person per day. This rule applies to all chemical contaminants that could possibly transfer from the package and into the food. One would have to read the USFDA releases in order to find this number. Not every new rule is announced in the daily news.

Question the source.

Many of the USFDA regulations are adhered to at the package manufacturer level, before the packaging reaches the food processing plant. Ask questions about the products, request a sample, and check the history of the company for issues in complying with USFDA rules. Companies that cut corners in order to produce are the ones more apt to introduce a contaminant into the food supply. Don’t let them use your company to do so. Instead, stay vigilant to any sudden changes, or oddities in any packaging shipments. This includes coloring, smells, and textures. Contrary to what you may think, recycled packaging can and often does have a uniform look, smell, and texture, just like packaging from non-recycled materials.

Train your employees.

If your company is the food processor and receives the packaging from an outside source, you must still take care to keep contaminants away. Sanitation, proper handling, and maintenance protocols are the keys to keeping the packaging safe. Train all employees in treating the packing as if it were the food being consumed, or as if it were a sterile tray in an operating room. Carefully apply lubricants and make repairs to the equipment without causing further contamination as well. Make each new USFDA release standard reading for all employees involved in the affected process.

Government statements often contain a massive amount of information that many people skim over, before tossing them aside. However, the concern over contaminating food through the packaging has made it imperative that plant managers read the releases thoroughly, and pass that information down to the production floor and maintenance crew.