Illegal packaging and its impact on the UK

Written by: RWW | Published:

Europe’s packaging firms are calling for more testing of overseas products following a flood of cheap imports from the Far East that don’t comply with regulations and threaten to contaminate recycling streams. David Burrows, freelance writer, investigates.

There is an alien invasion taking place and it’s threatening to damage Europe and the UK’s packaging sector, distorting usage figures, contaminating recycling streams and, in some cases, endangering the public. Indeed, illegal packaging could be coming to a take-away coffee near you. 

“In Europe, we rightly expect our packaging to be manufactured to the highest levels of safety and quality and [our] companies are proud to deliver on that expectation,” says Tony Waters of Solo Europe, outgoing president of Pack2Go Europe, which represents a number of leading foodservice packaging manufacturers. 

“The problem is double standards are being applied because national market surveillance organisations and customs services don’t adequately check imports from outside the EU,” adds Waters.

A survey of Pack2Go’s members back in November showed that 87% of respondents reported experiencing loss in market share in the past that can be directly attributed to cheaper imports - products that may not be meeting the EU’s demanding standards. 

Some 73% said they are currently suffering from such unfair competition. More worrying, perhaps, is that nearly 60% felt that those using the packaging - catering firms, snack food companies and the like - are not aware that the imported products they buy from distributors do not conform to EU requirements. 

“It’s time for service packaging users to start asking questions about the quality of imported products and demanding serious answers from importers and distributors,” urges Jan Schuerman of SwissPrimePack and Waters’ successor at Pack2Go. 

“Recent reports out of China show that locally manufactured packaging is not even meeting Chinese rules. It’s naive to think they are meeting ours when nobody ever checks.”

Illegal packaging is slipping under the radar. There has been little press pick up or political interest, despite the potential health risks claimed by Pack2Go. 

So RWW decided to investigate. Is the situation as bleak as Pack2Go suggests? How damaging is the influx of sub-standard goods to the packaging sector - and to consumers? Are foodservice companies to blame for not checking, or is there a need for enhanced border control and checks? 

Legal confusion

EU legislation requires that certain materials and ‘articles which are intended to come into contact with food’ must meet certain specific requirements. 

Regulation (EC) No. 1935/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 October 2004 on materials and articles intended to come into contact with food is the Framework Regulation in this case. 

Article 3 sets out the general principle that materials and articles must be manufactured in compliance with good manufacturing practice so that, under normal or foreseeable conditions of use, they do not transfer their constituents into food in a harmful way. 

The other key piece of general legislation is the Good Manufacturing Practice Regulation (EC) No. 2023/2006; this gives further detail of the Framework Regulation’s requirement to manufacture articles and materials in compliance with good manufacturing practice. 

Each member state has adopted these within its own legislation. Indeed, these are not new regulations - they have been in place nine and seven years respectively. 

However, there are some surprisingly large discrepancies between them. 

This makes for a fiercely complicated landscape, as Richard Inns from packaging experts the PEC Partnership explains. 

“The problem lies with countries whose legislation either is not clear or where it is only applied indirectly to the packaging. This latter point is a technicality, but an important one. 

“In some countries you can only obtain legislative approval for a package in combination with a very specific product; not the packaging on its own for a specified product type [fatty foods for example] as in the EU. These two factors together can make it very difficult for an importer of packaging to determine whether it is in line with EU or national legislation,” he adds.

Inns has compiled a list of all legislation relating to ‘food contact packaging’ from 67 different countries throughout the world. 

In July last year he was invited to attend the All Parliamentary Packaging Group (APPG) meeting to present his findings to MPs. 

His research clearly shows why packaging companies in the EU are getting nervous. One table in the presentation compares food contact requirements or processes in paper-based packaging products across the world versus the UK. China, for example, has a more or less similar legislative infrastructure to Europe, but for four main requirements - heavy metals, migration test, optical brightness and positive list - the test application refers to the ‘food contact layer only’. In other words, the printed side of the packaging might be excluded and that’s where a large part of the contamination risk can occur.

Alarm bells

This kind of cross-border confusion will have been present ever since companies starting importing packaging from outside the EU. 

Alarm bells have only begun ringing loudly more recently because the volume of materials from overseas has increased so rapidly. 

Indeed, after speaking to a range of experts in the field, there is little doubt that illegal packaging from far-flung destinations - notably China - is a burden on Europe’s packaging companies striving to meet rigorous standards. 

What’s more, it’s an issue that they feel that governments and enforcement agencies are doing little to address. 

Lorenzo Angelucci is MD of Seda UK, part of the Seda International Packaging Group, which produces paper cups, folding cartons and a range of rigid and flexible plastic packaging for some of the biggest food companies in the world; Kraft, McDonalds’ and Nestlé are among them. 

Angelucci provided a detailed and damning analysis of the current situation. 

“We hear constantly about environmental issues, packaging waste reduction, the Courtauld agreement, carbon footprints for packaging and so on. 

“But currently, if a UK distributor wants to buy a container of cheap paper-based packaging products from China, which are made from unknown origin recycled fibres or printed with benzene, they can be on the streets of UK cities in just three weeks and nobody can check or be aware of it.”

Angelucci is in no doubt there has been a “progressive and significant” expansion of non-European food packaging business volume in the past five years in Europe and, in particular, the UK. This comes mainly from the Far East and the US. 

The products tend to be comparable in range, but they are generally made from lower grade material and of lower quality, he explains; critically they also tend to be cheaper. 

“In some instances we came across post consumer recycled fibres and strong smelling solvent based print,” Angelucci claims. 

In the past, issues such as this have been addressed directly with the foodservice operator or distributor, but such is the scale of the problem that Europe’s packaging companies have decided to play hard-ball: they want regular testing of imported packaging products in line with other European Member States.

“We want the fundamental differences on what it is classed as food approved in the UK (and EU) versus other countries to be considered by the authorities as a potential risk in terms of food contact approval of non-EU packaging,” says Angelucci. “We also want a statistical percentage of non-EU imported packaging to be sent to a lab for analysis to ensure they comply with UK legislation on an ongoing basis.”

Border controls

In Germany this is already happening; there are now proposed border checks for adherence to proposed protocols on mineral oil ‘contamination’. 

Even in China, authorities have recently banned products from 43 disposable cup producers. 

Angelucci believes there should be, at the very least, aligned legislation and action between the UK, Italy, France and Germany, including border checks on non-EU imported packaging material. 

He explains: “In other countries like Germany or Italy there is a pro-active market surveillance. For example, when I was quality group director in Italy, I used to receive notification of packaging sampling from the Italian authorities at least once a month; samples are sent to external labs for compliance tests.”

The Foodservice Packaging Association is also lending its weight to the lobbying efforts; the issue was debated at the group’s recent environment seminar where it was agreed that more needed to be done. 

Neil Whittall is the FPA chairman: “We are pleased to see that this matter is being raised once again. The quality of products and materials is paramount, and we like many other organisations have long questioned the validity of claims made by some suppliers. 

“With increasing demands being placed on UK and European manufacturers any investigation is very welcome and we fully support Pack2Go. 

“As a trade body we will be increasing our activity in this area to make sure that we have a level playing field, but more importantly protect the consumer from more unscrupulous suppliers who may blatantly try and by-pass the rules,” he adds.

Politically, little progress has been made. 

The issue has been discussed with the UK Product Safety Focus Group, which is part of Trading Standards. 

Meanwhile, Carol Garrett, principal officer at Suffolk Trading Standards and the UK point of contact for border control of non-food products, has “noted the concerns” but cannot make any promises regarding changes. 

More recently, the parliamentary under-secretary for Wales, Baroness Randerson, wrote to Angelucci. In the letter she explained that responsibility for investigation lies with Trading Standards and, in turn, the Food Standards Agency. 

The letter reads: “The FSA emerging risk programme gains intelligence from many sources, and enables policy to be directed towards those issues that present a threat to the health and wellbeing of consumers. Should there be a particular problem which becomes evident from intelligence sources, there are a number of possible actions open to the authorities. 

“These include specific targeted sampling of that type of import, either on a national or European scale. However, such actions have to be both effective and proportionate, and thus there is a system of prioritisation with regards to any proposals.”

She cites the example of excessive levels of optical brightening agents that were suspected to be present in disposable paper cups imported from the Far East. Several months of investigations ensued, resulting in a “watching brief” rather than targeted sampling at ports. 

Nicky Strong is a consultant at law firm Bond Dickinson. 

She says there is a history of imports to the EU, particularly from China, that are sub-standard, but this more often relates to electrical goods and she is “not aware of any significant food packaging issues that have arisen recently”. 

However, she does note that the European Food Standards Agency introduced a specific regulation for imports of polyamide and melamine plastic kitchenware from China and Hong Kong (Directive 284/2011). 

This law requires the importer to submit a declaration and laboratory report confirming that products meet the requirements concerning the release of primary aromatic amines and formaldehyde to the competent authority. 

“Although the EFSA felt strongly enough to issue this regulation, they have not issued any alerts or requested any further dialogue with China’s authorities in relation to this issue,” she adds. 


Many other sectors of the waste industry will be aware that the budget restrictions placed on regulatory authorities can play into the hands of those trying to bend the law to make a quick buck. 

But the Pack2Go alliance remains defiant that the confusion surrounding imported food packaging and the corresponding legislation presents a risk to human health and must therefore be prioritised. 

Indeed, Pack2Go’s Schuermann notes that foodservice companies using the packaging would be “horrified” if they found out that their customers might be at risk. 

Small businesses, in particular, are beholden to their packaging distributor for advice. “It’s all very well to keep piling regulatory demands on to packaging made in Europe, but if we don’t demand the same of imports then consumers are not protected,” says Schuermann. “It’s just too easy for third country producers to take shortcuts and get away with it. We want the control authorities to put this issue on their priority list.”

But this isn’t just a customs issue. Buyers must actively engage with their suppliers to ensure the packaging they are using meets the relevant standards. 

Strong encourages those who have concerns to raise them with the Food Standards Agency. 

In a nod towards the wider issues in the food chain that were prompted by the horsemeat scandal, she concludes: “The complexity of the food supply chain makes it difficult to quickly identify and deal with potential and actual food fraud issues. 

“Perhaps the message for food businesses is to review their relationships with suppliers to establish whether there are any issues with the packaging being supplied and to bear in mind that if something seems too good to be true, [then] it probably is.” 

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