'Cancer risk in your cereal box’ and ‘Corn flakes cancer scare’, cried the headlines. When the story broke in March, on first glance it looked like just another food panic designed to make us feel guilty about what we should and should not eat.
Only this time around it was different. The origin of the cancer scare was not from the food itself, but rather the cardboard box that it was packaged in.
A Swiss study had found food packaged in recycled cardboard to be a potential health risk. And while the national newspapers were typically emotive and not entirely accurate in their handling of the story, the evidence from the study was a cause of major concern for anyone involved in the production and use of the material – and rightly so.
Two months down the line, however, and very little seems to have changed as a consequence of the Swiss study, and a similar one conducted in Germany. Contrary to press reports, cereal makers have not stopped using recycled cardboard boxes and, if they are to be believed, recycled cardboard converters have not reported a drop in demand.
So, is the recycled cardboard box really something to be scared of?
Given the fervour with which the nationals whipped up the story when it broke, perhaps it was no small irony that the potential cancer risk stems from mineral oil in inks used in, wait for it – newspapers. Newsprint, very often itself made from paper that has been recycled several times, tends to end up as recycled cardboard as there isn’t much else that can be made with it.
In March, Koni Grob, of the Food Safety Laboratory in Zurich, announced his toxicology team had found that the mineral oils in printing ink from recycled newspapers turned into cardboard could get into foods.
While admitting humans would only be exposed to tiny individual doses, Dr Grob claimed that the oils had been linked to inflammation of internal organs, and in the worst cases, cancer. Worryingly, 89 of 119 items bought from German supermarkets last year, which were mainly cereal, pasta and rice products, exceeded recommended mineral oil limits, and most exceeded it by as much as 10 times.
Just as concerning, Grob found that commonly used inner plastic bags had no protective effect. In fact, only aluminium foil was effective.
Not long after the study was made public, however, the Food Standards Authority (FSA) was quick to downplay fears. In a statement, it said: "We are not aware of any firm evidence to suggest there are food safety risks related to mineral oils in recycled food packaging. The research is interesting, but due to incomplete data the results have not demonstrated that mineral oils in food packaging represent a food safety risk."
Yet, the FSA hasn’t dismissed the findings completely. Instead, along with the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) it has decided to conduct its own research into mineral oil food contamination, the results of which are expected in the autumn.
In the meantime, it has effectively given the green light for food manufacturers to carry on as normal. Still, producers are understandably taking the issue seriously. Kellogg’s says it’s working with its suppliers on new packaging to allow it to meet environmental commitments but also contain significantly lower levels of mineral oil.
Jordans, meanwhile, switched from 80% recycled cardboard to an FSC-accredited board for a number of its products before the scare arose, not as a response to it, as was reported at the time.
Those working in print understand the nervousness food manufacturers must feel. Steve Wicks, director at eco-orientated print manager Greenprint Consultancy, believes any price rise food manufacturers would incur switching from recycled to virgin-fibre carton and cartonboard would pale into insignificance against a potential lawsuit if the boxes were found to be harmful to humans.
While stressing he is no expert on the toxicological effects of mineral oil, Wicks calls for a rational response. "The danger with these things is that everybody jumps on a bandwagon that says all recycling material is bad and we should not be using it," he says. "There has got to be a measured approach to the problem."
It’s a line that, understandably, ink manufacturers are keen to adopt as well. None are keen to talk directly about the issue, but the industry has a shared voice in the British Coatings Federation (BCF).
"What we have here is a fundamental issue that concerns the whole supply chain," explains BCF chief executive Tony Mash. "Will it result in newspaper inks becoming fully contact approved? Or do we have to change the way we recycle paper? Those questions I can’t answer right now, but I can say the ink industry is working very closely up and downstream to think this one through. I can also say ink manufacturers can offer, and do offer, food contact approved inks."
The BCF is currently taking guidance from the European Printing Inks Association (EuPIA). As long ago as 2009, EuPIA stated that "with very few exceptions, printing inks intended for graphic, general packaging and food packaging applications are not designed to come into direct contact with food, and therefore, the raw materials used in printing inks do not generally meet food standards."
At the time, EuPIA said it is the responsibility of those placing recycled paper and board on the market for food packaging purposes to assess any risk, and reduce it below acceptable levels in accordance with EC regulations. Naturally, it has reiterated this point since the recent scare.
"As EuPIA shows, the ink industry has been raising this issue for a while," says Mash. "I think we’re in for a broad reappraisal of our approach. Recycling is now so important – as it should be – there are second order issues now that have got to be addressed, one way or another. Packaging redesign clearly must be one of the ways forward."
Over at the Confederation of Paper Industries, corrugated sector manager Andrew Barnetson agrees ink manufacturers have been instrumental in helping industry move away from the use of mineral oils in inks. However, when asked whether there is a move away from recycled cardboard to cardboard produced from virgin-fibre, he sees no evidence of any recent trend. "I’m not saying it hasn’t occurred, I just haven’t seen anything," he explains.
Barnetson believes three issues conspire to prevent any wholesale market shift to virgin-fibre board. Firstly, supply for virgin-fibre cartonboard is considerably limited – as packaging printers that use it will testify. Then there is the cost premium and, finally, the environmental consideration.
One paper manufacturer that is increasing production of virgin-fibre cartonboard in the wake of the mineral oil scare is M-real. Head of consumer packaging Mika Joukio says primary cartonboard had already been increasing its market share, especially in food packaging, and he expects this trend to continue.
"In Europe as whole, we estimate the demand for primary fibre cartonboards to increase approximately 2-3% per cent per year," he adds.
When asked to what extent the increase is in demand as a result of the scare, Joukio says it’s difficult to say, but regards "its significance obvious".
If supply for virgin-fibre cartonboard can keep up with or even outstrip demand then, naturally, its price will come down. But what of Barnetson’s third consideration – the environmental benefit of using recycled stock?
"The German Federal Ministry for the Environment has come out very clearly and said paper recycling is a very well established and environmentally suitable process, and we shouldn’t be changing that," says Barnetson. "We shouldn’t jeopardise our recycling ability without good reason. And that is the point – there is no good reason to change at the moment."
Should the worst-case scenario arise, however, and the FSA and EFSA find there is a real health risk with recycled cardboard, then there will inevitably be some sort of shift to virgin-fibre materials. Even so, food producers may find it far more cost-effective to go down the road of changing packaging design, as BCF’s Mash believes.
Such an approach is advocated by Dr Grob himself, who at the time of the study’s release said: "The easy idea to change over to fresh fibres is not a viable solution because it would cost too many trees. We need better solutions such as introducing special barriers."
Whatever the outcome to the FSA research, it’s already clear ink manufacturers, board makers and food producers need to continue to work together to minimise mineral oil exposure where possible.
After all, the kind of lurid headlines witnessed in March are not just bad news for the consumer – they cause sleepless nights right across the supply chain. And no one wants nightmares over something as seemingly tame as a cardboard box.
THE RECYCLED BOX SCARE: KEY FACTS
• Mineral oil inks are generally used in newspaper print. When turned into recycled cardboard, it is impossible to extract all of the mineral oil from the material
• According to the latest research, mineral oils can leak out in gaseous form from the cardboard, permeate through the protective liner, and into the food
• Amounts digested by humans are likely to be considerably small, but they can accumulate
• There is no concrete evidence that low-level mineral oil intakes are harmful to humans
• However, studies on animals have shown that ingesting small amounts of mineral oil mixtures over a long period of time can lead to damage to the liver, heart valves and lymph nodes. They have also been linked to cancer
• There are currently three main approaches to tackling the issue: packaging redesign, a switch from recycled cardboard to virgin-fibre, and a reduction in mineral oil-based inks