Plastics and food

Are chemicals from plastic food containers and wrapping as safe as the industry and regulators claim or are they slowly poisoning us?
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05.What are the regulators doing?

The plastics industry has been fighting off tighter regulation. It’s a huge industry with vast resources (worldwide, it produces about 0.4 million tonnes per year of phthalates and more than two million tonnes of BPA ) and independent scientists have complained about an aggressive disinformation campaign. Certainly, industry websites blatantly highlight studies that support their point of view and ignore those that don’t. Our regulators could do more to protect consumers; a lack of evidence of harm is not evidence of safety.


The use of plastics for wrapping or packaging foods is governed by the Food Standards Code, which sets a limit for the level permitted in food of highly toxic vinyl chloride monomer (10 parts per billion) yet no specific limits for BPA, DEHA or phthalates. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our food regulator, maintains that BPA and phthalates pose no significant health risks at the low levels found in food. These compounds come under a vague clause in the Code that prohibits materials “likely to cause bodily harm, distress or discomfort”. FSANZ told CHOICE it plans to review the approach to regulating food packaging materials, but for now assesses the risk from individual chemicals on a case-by-case basis.

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) told CHOICE that they are aware of concerns about phthalates and are conducting a thorough investigation, focusing on the use of specific phthalates (including DEHP) in childcare articles, toys, and cosmetics.

In 2008 the Productivity Commission recommended that the Australian government establish a more systematic research program to identify and deal with the risks of chemicals in consumer articles, but to date there’s been no action.


DEHP has been classified as a probable human carcinogen and was recently banned from toys and childcare products, along with two other phthalates. But for BPA, the Food and Drug Administration continues to set the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight – well above levels that, according to hundreds of recent studies, could be causing serious health risks.

European Union

The EU recently banned the use of DEHP in all toys and articles used for childcare. Two other phthalates often used as plasticisers, DNOP and DINP, have also been banned for use in toys and childcare articles that small children might put in their mouths, such as teething rings and dummies. The EU has also specifically set very low limits for phthalates in food – 1.5 parts per million (ppm) for DEHP and 9 ppm for DIOP and DINP. But in 2006, the European Food Safety Authority reported that low-dose effects of BPA had not been demonstrated in a robust and reproducible way, and in particular found no consistent evidence that BPA causes cancer. The UK regulator, the Food Standards Agency, continues to assure consumers that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure.


Health Canada’s Food Directorate has concluded that “the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants”.

But the Canadian government has taken some action. It’s moving forward with proposed regulations to prohibit sale and importation of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles “due to the uncertainty raised in some studies relating to the potential effects of low levels of BPA”.


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