In 1958, when the Food and Drug Administration began wrapping the plastics industry with tighter food packaging regulation, the first domestic jet airline passenger service opened between New York and Miami. Nearly 40 years later, the agency and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. have agreed to take some of the wrappings of the past off. By government standards, this is progress.
The FDA's regulation of food packaging as a food additive (based on the laws of thermodynamics that substances will diffuse over time) has produced lengthy approval delays. That's because a complete pre-market approval process has been required for the FDA to affirm the packaging as safe for contact with food.
According to one study by the Reason Foundation of Los Angeles, between 1990 and 1994 only 15 percent of the 105 food packaging petitions approved by the FDA had been pending for less than a year. The agency is supposed to deal with them within 90 days.
While regulatory reviews are patently preferable to no oversight in matters involving public health and safety, the FDA's history in reviewing food packaging has been distinguished only by the nature of its regulatory overkill.
Jerome Heckman, SPI's general counsel, correctly described the system as ``archaic.'' He long has advocated a process by which packaging makers submit data to the FDA, and if the agency doesn't respond within a fixed time, market approval becomes automatic. That view is shared by former FDA counsel Peter Barton, who has said ``a completely separate and different process with far less government involvement'' is needed for indirect additives.
Reason may yet prevail. The FDA and SPI report an agreement to change the system. Barring a clear negative ruling against an additive added directly to food or food container materials, manufacturers would be able to sell their product within 120 days of notifying the FDA of their intent to market it, according to Heckman.
Whatever reservations some in Washington might hold about revising the regulations, Congress and the president can help take the wraps off by approving the agreement without further delay.
Necessity is a virtue
Enron Corp.'s determination to establish a forward market for resins using sophisticated risk-management tools has obvious potential for the plastics industry.
The Houston-based company, a producer of natural gas with interests in gas pipe lines, electrical power plants, oil and gas exploration and finance, has expertise in managing financial risk.
Enron's risk-management experience - particularly its ability to assess energy costs, a significant factor in resin production - make it a logical candidate to create a plastics forward market.
By devising programs that allow processors and suppliers to plan for the future with protection from anxiety-producing marketprice fluctuations, Enron is drawing on the history of agriculture as well as energy markets; risk-management programs support both.
The plastics industry has yet to adopt such a tool in a meaningful way. Enron hopes to see that change. Logic suggests it will.