Like an aging and overripe ballerina, the federal Food and Drug Administration dances awkwardly around the issue of plastics packaging and its relationship to food, while somehow regaining its poise when it comes to the glass and metal industries. FDA for years has muddled through the politically incendiary issue of recycled plastics in food packaging by issuing letters of nonobjection to package makers. Their basic function is to give manufacturers an implicit federal recognition of the safety of their plastics products without actually coming out and saying so.
These letters are issued for plastics only, even though years of research show no substantially different danger to the consuming public from plastics packaging than that of glass or metal.
The letter doesn't relieve a packager from being sued, but it allows the FDA to cover an exposed portion of its rather substantial posterior concerning the suitability of plastics in packaging.
FDA is promising to speed up its process for awarding such letters of nonobjection, which some manufacturers might find reassuring. The ultimate result may be that some plastics products make it to market a little sooner.
Congress also would be well-advised to pass strong risk-assessment legislation that would permit agencies to measure more precisely the rate of migration of substances such as bisphenol-A from plastics packaging into food.
Such a move would lessen the importance now placed on FDA's back-door approval of that packaging.
But in the end, these elephantine pirouettes of the FDA won't really amount to much more than fancy footwork. They have done little to forward the safety of food packaging in general and needlessly cost plastics packagers between one and five years to get food-additive approval.
It is important that viable plastics packaging products, containing both recycled content and virgin resin only, not be allowed to become obsolete or fall by the wayside as the approval process slogs along.
In the meantime, there is a more dynamic plastics issue at stake: Congress may vote to wipe out the equally archaic Delaney Clause, which mandates no cancer-causing agent in packaging can touch food. In Delaney's place may come requirements to establish the risk posed by plastics packaging to the public in general.
If Delaney is overturned, and indications in Congress are good that it will be, it will amount to a major victory for plastics and even may render the FDA approval process far less important, if not moot.
So what becomes of the issue of recycled plastics in packaging?
Maybe congressional action will provide that its use be governed more by the marketplace and less by federal bureaucrats. Maybe the differences between plastics and competing packaging products will be lessened in the eyes of federal regulators.
Maybe even recycled content as a so-called health concern will become less of an issue and its value to the market will become more of one.