Q & A: Safety of Polystyrene Foodservice Packaging

What do public health organizations say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?
What do regulatory agencies say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?
What do scientific experts say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?
Is it common for substances from packaging to “migrate” into food?
Does styrene occur in nature?
Where do people come into contact with styrene?

What do public health organizations say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?

Public health officials encourage the use of sanitary, single-use foodservice packaging (such as polystyrene) in appropriate settings – single-use foodservice packaging can help reduce food borne illness in homes, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, cafeterias and restaurants. More info here.

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What do regulatory agencies say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?

In the U.S., the federal  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates all food packaging materials, including polystyrene. FDA for decades has determined that polystyrene is safe for use in contact with food. More info here.

The European Commission/European Food Safety Authority and other regulatory agencies have reached similar conclusions. 

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What do scientific experts say about the safety of polystyrene foodservice packaging?

From 1999 to 2002, a 12 member international expert panel selected by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis conducted a comprehensive review of potential health risks associated with workplace and environmental exposure to styrene.

The scientists reviewed all of the published data on the quantity of styrene contributed to the diet due to migration from food contact packaging. The scientists concluded that there is no cause for concern from exposure to styrene from food or from polystyrene used in food contact applications, such as packaging and foodservice containers. More info here.

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Is it common for substances from packaging to “migrate” into food?

All packaging – glass, aluminum, paper and plastics (such as polystyrene) – contains substances that can "migrate" in very tiny amounts to foods or beverages. That’s one of the reasons why FDA regulates food packaging in the first place – to be confident that the amount of substances that might actually migrate is safe.

Test data submitted to the FDA indicated that the migration of styrene from polystyrene foodservice products is tiny and expected to be significantly below the safety limits set by FDA itself—10,000 times less than FDA’s acceptable daily intake level. More info here.

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Does styrene occur in nature?

Styrene occurs naturally in many foods and beverages. Its chemical structure is similar to cinnamic aldehyde, the chemical component that creates cinnamon's flavor. Styrene also is manufactured as a building block for materials used to make automobiles, electronics, boats, recreational vehicles, toys and countless other consumer products. 

When strung together into a polymer (plastic), styrene becomes a completely different material: polystyrene. More info here.

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Where do people come into contact with styrene?

People can come into contact with styrene from the small amounts that may be present in air (primarily from automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke) and in foods and packaging. Styrene is naturally present in many foods, such as cinnamon, beef, coffee beans, peanuts, wheat, oats, strawberries and peaches. More info here.

In addition, FDA has approved styrene as a food additive – it can be added in small amounts to baked goods, frozen dairy products, candy, gelatins, puddings and other food.

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