The New Zealand Food Safety Science & Research Centre annual symposium is being held online this year in a series of webinars broadcast every few weeks. The first session was held on September 1, 2021, featuring research from the New Zealand government and universities located in the country about potential chemical contaminants in food.  

Jeane Nicolas, a senior advisor on toxicology, food science and risk assessment at the Ministry of Primary Industries gave a presentation on the impacts of microplastics on human health, and an ongoing project in New Zealand to categorize the risk to residents. She reviewed the ever-growing body of microplastics research and pointed out that many factors in the interaction between microplastics and human bodies are not yet understood. According to Nicolas, few studies have conclusively analyzed the bioavailability of microplastics and their contaminants in humans, the toxicological effects of these particles and associated contaminants, or if microplastics significantly affect overall exposure of humans to toxic chemicals (FPF reported, also here and here). Nicolas pointed out that “a very important limitation is that there is no standard analytical method available. That means that different studies from different countries are done different ways and they’re not comparable and it’s really hard to share data and compare data.” 

In April 2020, New Zealand Food Safety, a governmental body, began a long-term research project on microplastics in the New Zealand diet. The study has three components, a food survey to “determine the levels of microplastics in a range of food categories” including fruits, grains, animal products, and wild foods; in vitro and ex vivo studies of microplastics’ bioavailability in humans after oral exposure, and an assessment of the impact of microplastic contamination to New Zealand’s natural resource and agricultural industries. This year, the European Union has also launched five projects on micro- and nanoplastics to better understand the impacts of plastic particles on human health (FPF reported).  

Phil Bremer, a professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Otago in New Zealand discussed the “risks and rewards associated with the use of food packaging containing recycled material,” focusing particularly on non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) in paper and plastic food packaging made from recycled content. Bremer stated that the concentration and diversity of NIAS increase with the times a material is recycled (FPF reported here and here). According to Bremer, “it’s important to understand that recycling has become somewhat of a political means to initiate changes, expected to deliver both economic and environmental benefits. So, making packaging more sustainable [by] including recycled components within packaging is seen to be good for both the planet and the companies’ economics.” But Bremer emphasized the importance of ensuring that the packaging “does not impact adversely” the food, and ultimately the consumer.      

To that end, Bremer and others at the University of Otago and the University of Auckland have recently started a project to “produce guidelines to help the food industry navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities associated with the use of food packaging containing recycled material.” The project includes seven steps: (i) interview food producers and manufacturers in New Zealand to understand future recycled packaging needs, (ii) interview suppliers to understand capability and capacity to produce packaging, (iii) collect information on the current composition of recycled packaging and guidance for its use, (iv) perform a literature review of NIAS in recycled packaging, (v) identify knowledge gaps and explore the likelihood that the public’s and government’s expectations around recycled packaging can be met, (vi) tailor recycled packaging guidelines to specific industries and commercial sectors, and (vii) run workshops to help industry in incorporating the information into their workflows. Bremer encouraged packaging suppliers, processors, and regulators to contact him if they are interested in getting involved in the project.   

The next session of the New Zealand food safety symposium is held on September 15, 2021, and will discuss “food safety risk management, standards, and strategies.”  


Read More 

New Zealand Food Safety Science & Research Centre (September 1, 2021). “Recordings of 1 September webinar presentations: Potential Chemical Contaminants in Food.”