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Special report: Mineral oil migration – some market players changing gears but lack of legislation still hinders common approach

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Special report: Mineral oil migration – some market players changing gears but lack of legislation still hinders common approach

June 23, 2016 - 01:50

BRUSSELS, June 23, 2016 (PPI Europe) -Mineral oil migration issues have been examined in scientific literature for a number of years, prior to reaching a broader audience through more mainstream media. The migration of mineral oil components from paperboard packaging materials into various foodstuffs in particular has been investigated in detail, reflecting a growing concern in Europe and resulting in a number of calls from NGOs for EU-wide regulation, functional barriers to separate food from packaging and/or allowable limits for the chemicals in question.

In spite of the growing media spotlight, migration of mineral oils into foodstuffs remains a difficult subject to grasp, as challenging as climate change and as complex as the chemicals involved themselves. For example, the latter can be sub-classified in many ways, including by carbon chain length, viscosity or whether they contain aromatic molecules. Depending on a number factors, mineral oils can migrate from packaging into foodstuffs. These factors include the nature and composition of the food, time and storage conditions, transport conditions (whether the products were packed in corrugated outer cases containing recycled board), and whether or not a functional barrier is present. In short: mineral oil contamination can originate from sources throughout the entire supply chain.

No legislation, many guidelines: On the legal front, unlike plastic, paper and board are not currently covered by any specific food contact legislation at the EU level, but are regulated instead under the Framework Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004 as well as the GMP Regulation (EC) 2023/2006 on good manufacturing practice for materials and articles intended to come into contact with food (see table below).

Faced with the regulatory fog, most European and national organizations and associations recognize that more knowledge and studies are required to come up with a suitable solution. As a consequence, they have developed and released their own recommendations and guidelines on best practices on the safe use of paper and board made from recycled fiber for food contact use.

Efforts in this direction started to gather pace recently. A meeting took place at the end of February between the European Commission and the Confederation of European Paper Industries (CEPI) representatives as well as some major board producers calling for a clear, comprehensive and harmonized regulatory framework on the subject. CEPI requested prioritizing the work on a measure according to the EC 1935/2004 annex I, a source said, referring to the list of groups of materials and articles which may be covered by specific measures. The Council of Europe last year released a draft technical guide on paper and board materials and articles intended to come into direct or indirect contact with foodstuffs, as well as a draft framework resolution.

At the end of May, a very early draft of a Commission Recommendation on the monitoring of mineral hydrocarbons in food and packaging materials was leaked. The document seems to be another attempt to define the scope and focus of the monitoring, including recommendation options on a list of food classes to be analyzed, sampling procedures and analysis methodology. The draft recommends the “active involvement of food business operators and other interested parties to perform the monitoring.” The draft also recommends that, for pre-packaged food, the level of mineral hydrocarbons be determined both in the food and in the packaging materials themselves.

“For a long time those interested in riding the mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons (MOSH) /mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH) horse have tried to get the legislators involved. Up to now, the EU hasn’t seemed very interested,” a source said. He added: “I’m not sure it’s worth pouring over every word of the draft at this early stage. I see it more as a signal that somebody has finally realized there must be a reaction at the EU level.” He continued: “The EU has to start by learning about the magnitude of the problem; consequently, the draft recommendation begins with monitoring. They will also have to learn about the difficulties of analysis and interpretation.”

Market reports also indicate that a new draft for the printing ink ordinance is being prepared by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) and should be available shortly, to be followed immediately by a new draft of the intended “Twenty-second regulation amending the German commodities regulation.”

Some are skeptical about this renewed interest in Germany, however. “Is this only a bunch of noise? What is the reason behind this initiative now that the EU is starting to show some interest in the matter? Is this because of the coming elections or is there a real purpose behind it?” asked a producer.

Which methodology for analysis?The complexity of the MOH mixtures is making the quantification of mineral oils and their migration into foodstuffs a tough task in the absence of a generally accepted analytical methodology.

Several authorities have initiated efforts to harmonize the methodology and thus obtain homogeneous analytical data, but only a few laboratories have analyzed MOH in a wide range of foods.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in collaboration with the Zurich Cantonal Laboratory states that it is possible to quantify the concentration of MOSH and MOAH fractions and certain sub-classes via methods based on gas chromatography (GC). The most efficient methods for analysis of MOSH and MOAH in food and feed comprise extraction followed by pre-separation by on-line high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled with GC and flame ionisation detection (FID), they say.

This method is also preferred by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). “Detection limits depend on the mass distribution, the sample matrix and any prior enrichment, and can be as low as 0.1 mg/kg. Comprehensive GCxGCFID enables a rough separation and quantification of paraffins and naphthenes in the MOSH fraction, but it is of limited practicality for routine analysis,” EFSA said, adding: “Contamination with polyolefin oligomeric saturated hydrocarbons (POSH), such as from plastic bags, heat sealable layers or adhesives, may interfere with MOSH analysis.” The organization said that the analytical ability to distinguish between the different MOAH subclasses in food is limited. For this purpose, GCxGC appears to be the most effective method. “Due to the complexity and the variable composition of MOH mixtures, it is not possible to define certified standards of general applicability,” said EFSA.

Not only does the reliability of the testing come from a generally accepted methodology, but also from the interpretation of its results. According to a chemist at an industry association, there is a debate on the BfR method, which he said may leave too much room for interpretation when it comes to results. “The BfR calls its method ‘validated,’ which means that if two laboratories use exactly the same method, they find the same chromatogram,” he said. “But you don’t identify specific compounds, you make an extract divided in more polar and non-polar fractions by using different solvents. You call the polar section MOAH and the non-polar MOSH. Then, with the two extracts, you do some derivatizations to eliminate compounds which are known not to be mineral oils and you inject both fractions in the gas chromatograph to get gas chromatograms. Then you have to decide which peaks you take,” the chemist said, adding: “The quantification and the definition of MOSH-MOAH which you derive from the chromatograms are different depending on the experience of the laboratory.”

In addition to the interpretation of the results, problem may arise from the fact that the hydrocarbons come from very different sources – natural and unnatural – and that the analysis does not concern specific compounds but mixtures and extracts.

“There is no general consensus on a validated method. We lack a convention according to which everyone could say: ‘this is the method and here are the results with the identified MOSH and MOAH content.’

For the time being, results are interpreted differently depending on parties,” the chemist said.

Cartonboard solutions vary: Cartonboard manufacturers, and especially recycled-fiber based producers, have developed different strategies for handling the migration issue but all agree that “the protection of consumer health is an utmost priority” in their business planning.

To that effect, some have developed a new barrier board or an inline/offline coating solution. Most solutions are already being commercialized, more or less successfully, in the market.

The official justifications behind the development of these products despite any statutory regulation include “the right of consumers for maximum product safety” and an actual request from consumers for such solutions, said a producer. “Consumers’ buying decisions will be influenced by public opinion builders like NGOs, who carry out their campaigns independently, whether there is a regulation or not. Consumers’ trust in safe food is important. A statement that packaging is made with functional barrier properties can help to differentiate it from other products and be used as a marketing tool,” he added.

Austria’s Mayr-Melnhof Karton (MMK) took the lead in this regard and is currently the most active and visible producer addressing the matter, with the development of its Foodboard barrier product. “This is the big difference with other suppliers, who have a product but not a total security concept behind it,” MMK said, highlighting the strict guidelines and security recommendations it has developed for converters and food manufacturers on how to use their board to sustain full functionality of the barrier. MMK’s barrier board aims to prevent any migration of defined unintended substances such as mineral oils, phthalates, diisopropyl naphthalenes (DIPN) and bisphenol A from the primary and secondary packaging. “Comprehensive long-term series tests of up to 36 months with leading multinational food producers over the past few years have confirmed the effectiveness of our barrier. Foodboard meets the latest published statutory requirements of a possible ‘mineral oil regulation’ from the BMEL. Furthermore, these external analyses based on the EU Convention prove that with the use of Foodboard no migration of MOAH into food above the detection limit of 0.15 mg/kg exists,” MMK said.

Germany’s Weig has also developed a functional barrier board, Unifood, based on recycled cartonboard, which is not a composite material and is fully recyclable. The product aims to avoid all migration of mineral oils, Bisphenol A and phtalates and operates as a standard type of recycled cartonboard in the printing and converting phase.

In addition to barrier board as such, some producers have developed and commercialized barrier coating solutions. Among them is Smurfit Kappa’s Catcher Board MB12. “The activated carbon layer in the recycled board keeps pollutants within the material and absorbs the odors even in the cut edges of the board, giving food products reliable protection against migration contamination by organic materials. It also protects against organoleptic effects of any taste and odor into the food,” the firm said on its website. Smurfit Kappa was unable to comment further before this story went to press.

Some producers and converters have also developed a more cost efficient laminate or extrusion coating barrier which is applied to the paper or board itself, like Mondi’s Miprotex or Van Genechten-BASF’s WLC Food Safe solutions.

Some other suppliers, however, have developed a barrier solution but have decided to wait for a clearer regulatory framework before launching commercialization efforts. Another reason behind this approach is what they see as a lack of demand for barrier board products at the moment.

Many suppliers on the recycled side said they have a solution with more or less high barrier levels available in their lab which has undergone some industrial testing. However, they have decided not to invest to develop it further for the time being. This category of suppliers generally developed a coating solution to apply on their existing cartonboard product.

“We just decided to adopt a different marketing approach as long as no regulation is in place. We are not going to say to our customers that the board we have been selling up to now is full of contaminants. This does not make sense,” said a producer.

“We follow the development of legislation and customer demand closely. At the same time, we make sure we have a solution ready if legislation and/or customer demand requires it,” another supplier said.

On the virgin fiber-based side, suppliers generally tended to stress that cross-contamination is not the primary source of mineral oil contamination. “Therefore we are not addressing such an issue in the first place. We believe that here the truth lies more in whether the packaging is made of virgin fibers or recycled fibers. The WLC mills of course have to say something against the FBB producers since their standing in this matter is so much worse,” a producer said.

It is, however, interesting to note that even some virgin fiber board producers have also started developing their own solutions. “This means that virgin fiber-based board producers recognize that every board producer is concerned,” said a source.

A WLC producer with a commercialized solution, however, admitted that the market for barrier board is rather limited for the time being. “Brand owners and food producers are aware of the problem but they don’t want to communicate and say that they are using a barrier board. They know that mineral oils in packaging is just the tip of the iceberg and that hydrocarbons are actually less present in the packaging than in the food itself,” he said. He added that the recent involvement of the EC – and the recommendation to monitor mineral oils present in the food as well as in packaging – should help to recognize that packaging is only part of the problem.

(To view full size image,click here.)

What cooperation in the supply chain?When asked officially, retailers and brand owners say they are monitoring this issue very closely and actively cooperating with their suppliers to address the problem, with some of them approaching suppliers with concrete suggestions.

On that question, MMK said that they had to establish close cooperation with leading international consumer goods producers in order to develop and fine tune its product. “Extensive long-term real-life tests were carried out in a wide variety of food segments like cereals, chocolate, pasta, rice, tea, bakery products, fast food and powder products,” MMK said. The firm added that the long-term series tests for branded and private-label products were conducted using a five-stage procedure: production and converting under standard production conditions, packing/filling, and storage under controlled conditions and analysis/migration tests. The firm carried out analyses on the packed food every three months. “The analysis period lasted at least 12 months and up to 36 months for selected products. Besides mineral oil compounds, tests were also conducted in the process for other defined unintended substances such as DIPN and phthalates. In total, more than 15,000 migration analyses were carried out,” the firm said.

According to Weig, retailers mainly want to understand the subject and the solutions the industry offers in order to apply them to their private label brands, whereas the brand owners are interested in protecting the value of their branded product. “There have been a number of ‘private’ conferences initiated by retailers to understand the subject and to discuss options and solutions with their supply chain partners,” Weig said. There is usually then a three-step process before the application goes to market, according to Weig. First the existing packaging solution is analyzed. Second, there is a trial phase for a limited edition until best-before date. Third, there is industrial testing for mechanical and logistic properties. All of these are accompanied by detailed analytical testing, the firm said.

Mondi also stressed the importance of cooperation along the supply chain: “We discuss aspects such as the combination of packaging components. For example, a transport box enables the physical movement of goods from A to B, the secondary packaging ensures useful logistics and the opportunity for advertising/promotion at the point of sale and the primary packaging ensures the stability of the food product. If the type of packaging is changed or modified, or the functionality of a packaging unit changes, an understanding of the total packaging system is fundamental.” The firm noted that it is important that packaging production should not be seen as a separate process from food production and food packing operations.

At the other end of the chain, some retailers and brand owners are also officially providing similar feedback on the need for an integrated approach, including Globus, Aldi Nord, Lidl and McDonalds. “The first step is that we and our providers work closely together to identify the possible sources of the migration in order to intensively identify how to avoid contamination in a sustainable way,” Lidl Germany said, adding: “The second part of our task in this area involves us working jointly with our suppliers on establishing concrete solutions for avoiding contamination through product packaging. This includes developing alternative packaging solutions such as packaging with coatings that act as a barrier to contamination or, alternatively, switching over to fresh fiber or foil sachets.”

German retailers Kaiser’s Tengelmann and Real are also reportedly pursuing a minimization strategy for mineral oils in foods despite “the fact that up until now there are no validated methods for sampling and detection of traces of mineral oil in Germany […] Moreover, we are part of different working groups, all of which have the aim to reduce MOSH and MOAH traces in products,” Tengelmann said.

When asked how this cooperation could be improved, most contacts said that open communication all along the entire supply chain – from cartonboard suppliers to converters and brand owners all the way up to the retailers – is the key for innovative packaging solutions. “A best practice example was a meeting, organized by a German retailer, with all of the stakeholders present to discuss possible solutions and to define their own public position,” MMK said.

Do end-users know what they need?“‘So, what are you doing about mineral oil?’ This is the typical question from brand owners. They want to know if you are active in this field and are working on it,” said a supplier. “It just shows that people are lost. They don’t know what they want or what they need. It will remain like that as long as there is no regulation,” said a market source.

Officially, there is cooperation along the supply chain. Unofficially, the situation is more complex and contacts said that most brand owners are more likely to rely on their suppliers to present options and technical solutions. “I would not say that there is advanced cooperation with brand owners and retailers. We have open discussions, exchanging thoughts around legislative scenarios and cost implications,” said a supplier. “Retailers seem to rely on the knowledge of the supply chain. Multinational brands have their own ideas and suggestions, whereas regional brands rely on suppliers’ solutions,” said another supplier.

In early February, Germany’s Aldi Süd sent letters to its private label suppliers making it clear that it did not want to have mineral oil in its products, leaving the problem to suppliers. “Against this background, however, we are fully aware that general timelines are not realistic,” Aldi Süd said. The firm added that “depending on the product, time is required in order to identify possible sources of the entry of mineral oil along the entire supply chain as well as to initiate corresponding countermeasures and/or develop alternatives.” In order to make their requirements binding, however, the firm said it would conduct checks at regular intervals to determine whether measures had been implemented and that it would “consider the seriousness involved in addressing this topic when making future purchase decisions.”

Some believe Aldi Süd’s move signals a change on the market. “German retailers have woken up somehow. Maybe it’s the initiative of Aldi which made all the others also feel that they should do something. It’s much more intense than before,” said a supplier. Some sources mentioned similar requests coming from brand owners like Mars or OTG in Germany. Neither firm responded to a request for comment.

The NGO Foodwatch asked 10 big trade chains in written requests if they intended to follow Aldi Süd’s initiatives. “Six of them distanced themselves from the position of the leading lobbying association for German food producers, the German Federation for Food Law and Food Science (BLL),” an expert from Foodwatch toldPPI Europe, adding that “the trade chains now have to walk the talk. The only acceptable standard is Aldi Süd’s zero-tolerance.”

The BLL explained in a letter to Aldi Süd that mineral oils in foods were “tolerable to a limited extent” and presented “no danger for consumers’ health.” “The contamination is indeed undesirable [but] an absolute zero tolerance is not justified,” the BLL said.

However, a large end-user said: “As long as there is no standardized and accepted method for measuring MOH migration based on legal limits there is little sense in pushing for such tests.”

“We do not have cooperation as such with end-users, we are in contact and we have some discussions but that is all. They want their suppliers to come up with different options and then they will make a decision,” said a producer.

According to a converter, brand owners are relying on suppliers and carefully watching each other. “[Private label and brand owners] know that there is a problem. They are asking more for guidance than giving options,” said another source.

Without regulation, the price is what makes the difference, most sources agreed. “The most economical solution is the winner,” said an end-user. “Brand owners are all about the price, and they want the producers to take care of it,” a producer said.

According to some end-users, the current barrier products and solutions are too expensive, with some products at the price level of folding boxboard. “Most companies are not willing to pay for the significant upcharge,” a consultant said.

“Sure, they all ask for the most economical solutions. But that does not help to establish what brand owners really need,” said another producer. He added: “If they need a total barrier board, it is expensive. If they need a treatment preventing mineral oil migration, then it’s more economical. What they can accept needs to be established – below the recommended limits? Still detectable but below the recommendations? No migration at all?”

Many suppliers on the recycled side agree that their customers are not ready to pay more than the cost of standard WLC board. “When you look at [some barrier boards or solutions], you end up with a lower board quality de-inked grade, which is not so clean and white, for a price comparable to FBB,” said a large converter.

When asked if switching to new barrier board products was an option, a large brand owner said: “Theoretically yes, but without any legal regulations, we do not see a need for the time being. Our packaging policies are already very strict. Furthermore, the cost of barrier boards is high and other barrier solutions may be more cost effective.”

For the moment, most converters and brand owners have opted for different concrete solutions: the use of low-migration inks, switching from recycled to virgin fiber-based cartonboard or the use of a functional barrier to avoid recycled board being in direct or indirect contact with food.

“We strive to exclude petroleum residues from our products. Consequently, we communicate very extensively with our suppliers. These measures include, for instance, using only petroleum-free printing inks for our own products. When cardboard or paper is employed as a packaging material, it is separated from the product by a suitable barrier,” said Germany’s Lekkerland.

Some converters also said that they had recently switched to low odor/low migration inks, replacing some mineral-based components with vegetal ones. A few end-users also mentioned the use of plastics or shrinks.

“First, all potential sources of contamination need to be identified in each supply chain. Second, sources not related to packaging but to raw materials, processes and so on, need to be eliminated – this is more critical than packaging. Third, packaging and barrier options need to be compared. And of course a standardized way to measure MOH migration needs to be established, based on clear rules,” said a large brand owner.

“At the stage we are in, the rules of the game needs to be set. Until then, retailers, brand owners, end-users and producers will speculate and interpret the results from different lab results as well as legislative drafts. It´s clear what needs to be done; the willingness to add to costs is low unless there is firm evidence that is translated into legislation or customer demand,” concluded a supplier.

(To view full size image,click here.)


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