It's not uncommon for companies to shuttle executives between posts in Europe and the United States to broaden their thinking. Some in the plastics food-packaging industry wish they also could shuttle regulators back and forth once in a while.
Industry would like greater cooperation and synchronized regulations between food-packaging regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe, in particular, to match an increasingly global packaging market. The idea has provoked lively discussions at recent food-packaging forums.
But the agencies aren't ready to embrace that step completely. The Food and Drug Administration and the European Commission say they do want to share information and cooperate. But the topic of ``harmonizing'' regulations, to use the industry buzzword, is quite sensitive.
``We have an interest in sharing our information,'' said Mitchell Cheeseman, assistant to the associate director for science and policy in the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety. But, he added, ``I don't want to use the H-word.''
Industry would like more cooperation so that costs are reduced and products get to market faster.
Now, firms must seek approval around the globe, with no coordination among governments, said Ralph Simmons, a lawyer who specializes in food-packaging issues with Keller and Heckman LLP in Washington. Preparing each application costs around $50,000, and toxicology tests can run from tens of thousands of dollars to several hundred thousand.
``Eventually you can get all the approvals, but eventually is a word that companies don't like to hear,'' he said.
Cheeseman, speaking June 27 at a Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. conference in Baltimore, said regulators from the European Union, Canada and the United States are meeting to gain a better understanding of each other's review processes and to see where there is common ground.
But he said there are significant differences in how regulators in each country judge safety.
The United States, for example, would be uncomfortable with the EU system because it does not give the government as much information about how materials are used, Cheeseman said.
The Europeans, by contrast, allow much less migration of chemicals from packaging into food, said Luigi Rossi, principal administrator of the EC's Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General in Brussels, Belgium. He spoke in April at a Ciba Specialty Chemicals forum on global food-contact regulation in Washington.
``We don't want excessive migration, even if it is safe,'' Rossi said. ``Food packaging should be, in principle, inert.''
Rossi said the United States allows higher migration levels because it has much better data on how much of a typical diet is packaged in what kind of material. One of the mandates of Europe's food-safety agency is to gather that data, Rossi said.
European approval gives packaging suppliers flexibility by covering a range of potential uses, which also could be a barrier to regulatory harmonization.