Plastic packaging

Food is commonly packaged, stored and cooked in plastic, but some people are concerned that chemicals can leak from the plastic and into foods. Learn which plastics are used, and how to reduce the risk of chemicals in plastic migrating into food.


What is the issue?

Plastic is used to store, cook and prolong the life of many foods. Plastic packaging, containers and cling films often give instructions on safe use to help prevent chemicals from getting into foods. However, some people are concerned that chemicals can move from plastic packaging, cling film or containers into foods.

Plastic additives can migrate into food

Plastics commonly used for food packaging and containers in New Zealand are very stable if used properly. Most plastics in contact with food have very large molecules that do not migrate into food.

But some additives added to plastics to make them more useful – for example, heat resistant or 'sticky' (like cling film) – may potentially leach into food during cooking or storage.

These include:

  • bisphenol A (BPA) – may be released from polycarbonate bottles (when washed with harsh detergents or bleach) or lacquer used in food or drink cans. At high levels, BPA can be hazardous because it weakly mimics the female hormone oestrogen
  • diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) – may migrate into fatty foods (such as meat or cheese), especially when heated
  • diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) – a plasticiser used in jar or bottle seals and lid inserts in bottles, spreads and juices. It's also used in label inks.

New Zealanders' intakes well below safe limits

New Zealanders' intake of chemicals from plastics is well below maximum safety limits.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Even the highest estimated dietary intake of BPA in New Zealand (0.0003mg/kg of body weight/day) is well below the European Commission's tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.05mg/kg body weight/day.

DEHA

New Zealanders' use of cling film is similar to use in the United Kingdom. DEHA intakes in the UK are estimated at up to 8.2mg/day – well below the safe level recommended by European Union (EU) experts of up to 21mg/day for a 70kg adult.

Although it's very unlikely, you could consume high levels of DEHA if you ate fatty foods packaged in commercial cling film each and every day of your life. But because most people eat a variety of foods, all packaged differently, your DEHA exposure should be well below the TDI.

MPI's role in reducing the risk of plastic in food

The Joint Food Standards Code sets maximum levels for the presence of some food-contact chemicals in foods. Under the Food Act 2014 and the Joint Food Standards Code, food manufacturers and retailers must make sure foods they produce or sell are safe.

Manufacturers and suppliers must ensure materials in contact with food are fit for purpose in their food control plans. This might include evidence that their packaging comes from a company that meets international specifications for packaging safety.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is reviewing requirements for packaging materials, including the potential migration of substances. MPI is a member of FSANZ's packaging advisory group and is participating in this review.

How to reduce the risk

Follow these tips to help reduce the risk of chemicals from plastic packaging and containers getting into your food.

  • Follow manufacturers' instructions when using household plastics such as cling films and bags, and use recommended cleaning products and methods.
  • Use the right plastic for the job – for example, use only microwave-safe plastics in the microwave. When re-using plastic containers, use them only for the purpose they were meant. For example, you can freeze food in ice-cream containers, but not for heating in the microwave.
  • Don't let cling film touch foods during cooking, as it melts at a low temperature. Keeping a corner of the dish uncovered allows steam to escape and reduces the risk of film blowing off and settling onto food.
  • Thaw plastic-wrapped meats, or meats frozen on plastic trays, at low temperatures. Migration of DEHA increases with heat in contact with a fatty food.
  • Avoid dented food or drink cans.

Supermarket checkout bags

  • Don't heat food in supermarket checkout bags – though you can use them in the fridge or freezer.
  • Use bags right-side-in to stop food coming into contact with printing ink.

Find out more

Who to contact

If you have questions about plastic packaging and food, email info@mpi.govt.nz.

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