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Overwhelming Majority of EU Parliamentarians Call for Ban on BPA in All Food Contact Materials

On 6 October 2016, an overwhelming majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) called on the EU to ban the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in all food contact materials (FCMs). Hong Kong traders of a wide range of products including plastic cutlery, lunch boxes and food machinery may be impacted should the EU grant the request.

BPA, the only substance targeted by the sought-after ban, is a chemical compound used to make certain plastics and epoxy resins commonly found in everyday objects such as kitchen appliances and plastic water bottles. It was singled out by MEPs for EU-wide specific measures given its prominence in the EU market and increasing fears that it poses a risk to human health. Notably, the use of BPA in infant feeding bottles has already been prohibited at the EU level since January 2011.

The request for a ban was introduced as an amendment to a non-legislative report implementing Regulation No 1935/2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. Packaging, kitchen equipment, containers, tableware and other FCMs all fall under the Regulation’s scope which was introduced in light of growing concerns that the paper, plastic, varnishes etc. used to make such products transfer their chemical components to the food and, as a consequence, harm public health. The Regulation therefore sets out general safety rules applicable to all possible FCMs and allows for the adoption of specific EU level measures.

In a latest report on the FCMs regulation, Christel Schaldemose (S&D party), rapporteur for the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (ENVI), criticised major gaps in the EU’s existing legislation and called for harmonised regulations for all FCMS. In particular, the report disapproved of the failure of the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) to take into account the so-called ‘cocktail effect’ resulting from chemicals acting together and the effects of multiple exposures to chemicals in low doses from different sources.

This report, which in its final version contains the amendment, received wide support in the European Parliament. Among the 616 MEPs who cast their vote, 91% voted in favour, 5% voted against and just 4% abstained.

Such an affirmative result was reached despite the existence of a 2015 EFSA evaluation on BPA exposure and toxicity which concluded that BPA posed no risk to consumers of any age at current exposure levels (migration limit of 0.6 mg of BPA per kg of food). The Parliament’s recently adopted stance also goes beyond the Commission’s position to only set a tighter migration limit of 0.05mg of BPA per kg of food in certain FCMs, as outlined in its draft regulation proposed in March 2015. 

Prior to the report, in July 2015, ENVI had already put forward a text calling on the Commission to add BPA to the candidate list of substances of very high concern (SVHC), under the REACH Regulation, on the basis that it is an endocrine disruptor, having harmful effects on the immune system. On a side note, this looks increasingly likely to be given particular consideration, following a recent decision by the European Chemicals Agency to open a consultation on making BPA an SVHC, after it was proposed by the French authorities.

Justifying its position to call for the introduction of the ban on BPA in FCMs, MEP Martin Häusling (Greens), and a further forty MEPs, who put forward the amendment, pointed to the fact that while the EFSA may have found that there was no risk to the liver, kidneys and mammary glands in humans, it did not conduct a sufficiently thorough and up-to-date analysis of the harmful effects of BPA on other parts of the body, e.g., the reproductive and immune system, before concluding such effects were unlikely.

Justifications for the amendment were, in particular, built around recent evidence from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) which found that the current limits do not protect foetuses or infants from BPA’s effects on the immune system. In response to this evidence, the EFSA has announced that it will reassess BPA’s hazards throughout 2017 and 2018.

Also of significance to the Parliament’s decision to impose an EU-wide ban on the use of BPA in FCMs was the fact that France has already banned the use of the substance in all food packaging since 1 January 2015. Schaldemose said that without this ban, differences in standards of protection would hinder the EU’s internal market and create uncertainty for consumers, authorities and companies.

In a statement after the vote, Häusling praised the strong support for his proposed ban but added that “[w]e cannot stop here, there must be further research in the field of nanomaterials as little is still known about their effects on human health.”

As for the industry’s response to the vote, the BPA Coalition, a Brussels-based association of manufacturers and users, as well as lobby group PlasticsEurope, have described it as undermining established risk assessment consumer protection-based principles. Appearing to raise it as an example of politics trumping science, they have pointed, in particular, to the fact that the ban contradicts the findings of the EFSA’s 2015 evaluation.

While not binding on the EU legislature, the overwhelming majority by which the European Parliament voted now puts substantial pressure on the EU to put an end to the use of BPAs in FCMs in all Member States.

Hong Kong traders could therefore take the Parliament’s vote as a sign to prepare for the potential introduction of a ban on BPA in FCMs in the EU. In seeking out suitable alternatives to using the impugned substance, manufacturers may wish to be particularly cautious of switching to those kinds which have the same (alleged) endocrinal or other (alleged) harmful properties as BPA. Indeed, traders should take into account the likelihood that a ban on those substances may also be up for debate in the future.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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