Time to Make Sure You’ve Got A Plan P

Public health interest is growing in endocrine disrupters: chemicals that alter hormones and body functions and that have been linked with cancers and infertility.

In food, the focus is on phthalates, substances added to plastics that increase their longevity, flexibility and transparency – useful in food and drink packaging. The good news is these plasticisers are being phased out of many products – but the industry needs to go further and faster as the evidence of their ill effects mounts.

Phthalates are used in a wide variety of product packaging as glues, detergents, printing inks and coatings – and are routinely used in milk, butter and meats, as well as in perfume, nail polish, liquid soap and hairspray.

The very latest US research links high levels of phthalate exposure with childhood obesity. Another 2012 study showed people with elevated phthalate levels had roughly twice the risk of developing diabetes. A link with breast cancer has also been established.

In Europe, we absorb a billion tonnes a year and recent data shows that children are ingesting more than is tolerable – in some cases more than 20 times.

So what should retailers and manufacturers do? The first thing is not to overreact. The EU Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks recently concluded that even if children swallow the rubbers on top of pencils it is unlikely to lead to health consequences.

But suppliers and retailers do need to get serious about packaging, which means exploring biological alternatives. They are not suitable as a primary plasticisers and are also relatively expensive. However, R&D teams could do worse than look at those based on vegetable oils.

Retailers in particular should also keep a close eye on the legal situation. With scientific evidence mounting up, don’t rule out future legislation.

This is an issue that could explode into the mainstream. If it does, the first retailer to establish a coherent, easily communicable position on plasticisers will be well-placed to win shoppers trust and custom.

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