Food contact materials

Food contact materials (FCM) are materials and items specifically designed to come into contact with food. Examples are containers used in the food transport industry, packaging materials, kitchenware and tableware. During the contact, chemical substances can migrate to or be released into the food. As these chemicals may endanger human health, Sciensano evaluates their potential risks.

What are food contact materials?

Food contact materials (FCM) are materials and items specifically designed to come into contact with food during its production, processing, storage, preparation or serving.

FCM can be constructed from a broad variety of materials like plastics, rubber, paper and board, metals and alloys, ceramics, but also the printing inks and adhesives used on the outside of the packaging. All these materials are considered as food contact materials.

Which contaminants can migrate or be released from food contact materials?

The substances which are likely to migrate from FCM can be intentionally added. For instance, these can be monomers or pre-monomers used for the manufacturing of the materials or additives used to improve the characteristics of the final product (like antioxidants, plasticisers, UV-absorbers, etc). In addition to these substances of known origin, the FCM may contain non-intentionally added substances (NIAS), with sometimes an unknown origin. Examples are impurities present in the intentionally added substances (IAS) or degradation and reaction sub-products created during the manufacturing process of the material. In addition, NIAS may arise from recycling processes, as both food contact materials and non-food contact materials like newspapers can be recycled. Materials intended for recycling generally contain additives, dyes, adhesives and NIAS that also enter in the recycling processes. Furthermore, these substances can react during the recycling process, thereby forming new unwanted NIAS. For food contact materials made out of metals or alloys, we talk about ‘release’ which is defined as the unintentional transfer of metal ions to food. Either components or contaminants and impurities can be released from metal and alloys. In practice, thousands of substances are present in FCM and can migrate to the food.

Examples of commonly analysed contaminants are:

Sciensano’s research and analytical activities focus on the identification and evaluation of potential health threats related to (un)known substances that can originate from food contact materials. Sciensano also acts as the National Reference Laboratory (NRL) for food contact materials.

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