Monday, December 7, 2015

Wrapping food in used news paper-A practice with questionable safety issues

It may appear ridiculous for a westerner to see foods being wrapped in old news paper materials in many countries in Asia such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia etc which is the most practiced way of serving foods by most street vendors. This is due to the thriving market that exists for used news papers in these countries, as millions of copies of publications in English as well as in many local languages are printed and distributed to meet the demands of the reading public. It is amazing that in spite of the high growth of electronic communication system news papers are vividly read by most people to satisfy their hunger for news and information. By the latest count there are over two hundred and fifty major news paper publications alone in India though over 85000 publications are registered in total. In Hindi language itself there are over 156 million copies circulated daily while English papers print another 56 million copies every day. On an average each news paper copy costs about Rs 5 and monthly budget for a reader estimated at Rs 150 for one publication. Most households sell off their old news papers to "raddiwallas" who buy these papers through house to house soliciting. In general a month's paper can fetch about Rs 20 on an investment of Rs 150. Where do these papers end up?

The curiosity about this subject was aroused by a recent report from Kangar, Malaysia about a ban enforced by the local government on use of old news papers for wrapping food materials due to apprehensions about the safety of the paper wraps for food contact application. Accordingly from January 2016 no food operator is going to be allowed to use printed papers, mostly old news papers for  packing of foods and violations can attract punitary fines as high as 10 000 Ringits ( about one and a half lakh rupees) and possible imprisonment of two years. The reason cited by the authorities for taking such a strong policy decision is based on the data generated on the toxicity of chemicals present in news papers that can get migrated easily into the food packed in it. Interestingly the punishment regime was proposed for January next year after giving about 6 months time for the food operators to understand and be well informed about the health implications inherent in use of printed papers. Probably this is a wise move by a government which has the health and well being of the citizens upper most in its mind.          

In India we consume about 2.5% million tons of news print annually out of which 60% is imported. May be this is not a huge quantity amounting to just 1.8 kg annual per capita compared to 3.5 kg in Asia as a whole and against the global average of 9 kg per capita. In a country like Canada 80% of used paper is recycled whereas in our country the corresponding figure is just 26%. Packing or wrapping in old news papers and other discarded papers is very common in India and those who buy them use the same in a variety of ways. Some make paper bags for packing dry materials while others resell them to retail traders for packing the wares sold by them It is rare that such paper wastes are burned or used in land fills. With the advent of plastics, especially polyethylene and polypropylene, use of paper is increasingly being phased out by the retailers. But use of plastics is also now being frowned upon because of the dangers involved in migration of chemicals, some of them toxic, from the plastic bags to the foods carried in them and use of plastic bags with less than 40 microns thickness is banned in many places in India. This naturally shifts the focus once again on paper though reusable cloth bags are being promoted extensively. With such a dicey situation is the paper usage going to see a spurt in future? May be but the dangers involved must be carefully monitored to prevent any future catastrophe at the national level.

A curious consumer may be pardoned if he is not convinced about the non-safety of used news papers and other printed paper materials for packing foods. but scientific evidence cannot be brushed away easily. According to toxicologists familiar with hazards of printing inks which are used across the world, there are thousands of chemicals required to be used to get attractive printed products and many of them are highly toxic to human beings. Especially news papers produced using the off set -web printing use very thick consistency inks and a particular type of drying where mineral oil, solvents like methanol, benzene and toluene are used. The heavy metal Cobalt is a part of most of the drying agents. Generally mineral based printed inks are known to contain Mineral Oil Saturated Hydrocarbon (MOSH) and Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbon (MOAH) which are sources of gases generated by evaporation which can penetrate into foods packed in such papers. The FAO-WHO Alimentarius Commission has set an upper limit of 0.6 mg/kg that can be considered safe intake through food. Besides countless colorants, pigments, binders, additives, photo-initiators etc are present in high quality printing inks, some of them being highly toxic. Some of the chemicals detected in printed papers include Aryl Amines, Benzidine, 2-Naphthylamine, 4-Aminobiphenol etc implicated in cancers affecting bladder and lungs. 

What type of foods are most vulnerable to dangers due to printed paper packing? Generally dry products with low water and fat are relatively safe to be wrapped for short time while high fat products like Pakoda, Vada, Dosa, Bajji, etc are unsuitable to be packed in these papers. Similarly wet foods are also not considered suitable for news paper packing though the low strength of paper will cause disintegration after a few minutes, thus being a self limiting factor.While focus above has been mostly on used news papers, there is another equally critical area requiring attention when the safety of food packing is considered.  According to some estimates Indian generates about 15 million tons of waste papers of all types that include note books, stationery products, envelops, notices, etc and since only quarter of this gets into the recycling stream bulk of it gets used for packing house hold goods including food. What are the safety implications here? They are equally risky when it comes to food wrapping or packing. Another dimension to their safety is the danger posed by pathogenic micro organisms which contaminate the papers when stored for some time under humid conditions in unhygienic places exposing them to open air and atmospheric dust besides vectors like cockroach, insects and house hold pests all of which make their own contribution to make the old news papers a veritable source of microbes with different pathogenicity.         


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