24 Sept 2010
Revamping of EU legislation paves way for changes to regulation of food contact plastics
The year 2011 will signify change for Hong Kong’s food contact materials suppliers, as a new Regulation – commonly referred to as the Plastics Implementing Measure or “PIM” – is expected to be adopted by the European Commission early next year. This is relevant to Hong Kong businesses as the new text, replacing a set of existing directives, will go further than simple consolidation: it should also bring with it some changes to the substance of the legislation.
The existing rules of food contact plastics are only part of a larger system of rules covering “food contact materials”. These materials, as the Commission states on its website, “are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with foodstuffs, including packaging materials but also cutlery, dishes, processing machines, containers, etc.” The term also covers “materials and articles which are in contact with water intended for human consumption” (but not fixed public or private water supply equipment). Food contact materials are regulated in order to ensure that the materials are safe and do “not transfer their components into the foodstuff in unacceptable quantities” (a phenomenon called migration). Thus, consumer health protection is the goal.
A number of rules make up the system of regulation of food contact materials. Framework Regulation 1935/2004 lies at the top of the system and sets up general requirements for all food contact materials. Within that framework, the European Commission has set out laws for a number of specific materials that are listed in the Framework Regulation, and for certain individual substances (or groups of substances) used in the manufacture of materials and articles intended for food contact. Among the materials which are regulated by specific legislation are plastic materials – or “food contact plastics”.
Currently, food contact plastics are governed by a number of legislative instruments, one of those being the Plastics Directive (2002/72/EC - amended several times). The new Regulation – the PIM – being drawn up in the European Commission aims to replace a number of existing directives as the accumulation of texts has resulted in a redundant, confusing and sometimes obsolete regulatory regime. However, the PIM goes further than merely consolidating various directives, and will introduce some changes to the way food contact plastics are regulated.
One change set to be introduced by the new Regulation should be the expansion of the legislation to include plastic layers that are used in multi-material articles. Plastic layers of multi-material articles, that is to say articles made up of plastic and non-plastic layers, are not subject to plastics legislation so far but shall be under the PIM, albeit with exemptions (for example, regarding rules on migration).
Several new definitions as well as the expansion in scope of existing ones will also be introduced. Furthermore, the PIM should expand some of the existing lists which are a part of the plastics legislation to include more authorised substances. The lists are “positive lists”, so substances not included in the lists will not be authorised for use in food contact plastics. Similarly, special rules will apply for nanotechnology, as substances in nano form will require special authorisation.
Another change under the PIM would be new rules for testing conditions of food contact plastics (the latter need to be tested for safety, simulating potential migration of components to foodstuffs). This might be of particular significance to Hong Kong traders as these changes could lead to more testing burdens for companies supplying the EU market.
As a concession to the many changes, the PIM will provide for a structured implementation (to be implemented in stages), allowing Hong Kong sellers time to fully comply with some of the new requirements. For instance, for a period of 4 years after adoption, plastic gaskets used in non-plastic caps and closures will not be affected by the positive list of substances laid out in the law.