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Is Your Pizza Box Trying to Kill You?

By Jan Bottiglieri, Editorial Director, Paper360°

On the last day of 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a notification titled “Update on Perfluorinated Grease-proofing Agents.” The FDA also published a press release with the headline “FDA Revokes Food Additive Approval for the Use of Long-Chain Perfluorinated Compounds as Oil and Water Repellents for Paper Used in Food Packaging.” That headline is certainly accurate, but it’s not very catchy (a problem we’ll revisit below.) The press release included additional details about why the formerly-approved compounds were banned and what previous actions had been taken. An even more detailed notice of final action from the FDA is available here—it’s very science-y, for those who enjoy that.

I must say, with all sincerity, that I love when the FDA bans things that might harm me. While I am a staunch supporter of the pulp, paper, and packaging industries and a great believer in the benefits of our industries’ important products, I am first and foremost an eater of food. It won’t matter where I work or who I support if the food I am eating is not safe, and that includes the package it came in. I also believe there is a strong business case for making safe products. Apparently, actual business leaders agree with me: years before the grease-proofing agents in question were banned, manufacturers volunteered to stop distributing them. This important detail is clearly stated in the FDA notification.

Unfortunately, most average citizens don’t closely follow the exciting world of federal regulatory notification. Instead, they look to other news outlets to report back on the really good stuff.  That’s why, during the first weeks of January, media outlets around the U.S. shared the story under headlines like these:

  • Some pizza box chemicals no longer considered safe by FDA (Neogen blog)
  • FDA bans common chemical in pizza boxes (Fox News Health)
  • FDA: Pizza Boxes May Cause Cancer (Gothamist.com)
  • Attention, Pizza Lovers: Your Pizza Box Is Probably Toxic (Huffington Post)

And my favorite:

  • Pizza Boxes Are the Newest Thing That Will Kill Us All (“Munchies” blog at vice.com.)

Fortunately, our industry has strong advocates helping to correct misperceptions in the media. By mid-January Stewart Holm, head scientist at the American Forest and Paper Association, had released a statement under this headline: “News Reports on Pizza Box Safety Misleading to Public.”

In the AF&PA release, Holm writes: “Recent news reports on the health and safety of pizza boxes have failed the public, creating undue worry and giving a bad rap to products that help safely deliver the food we eat.

“While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of three grease-proofing agents in pizza boxes, news reports fail to acknowledge that U.S.-based manufacturers stopped using these agents in pizza boxes over four years ago. Today’s headlines would lead you to believe changes currently are needed in pizza boxes, as this critical information was left out of most stories.”

Holm concludes his statement by noting, “In this instance, our industry led by acting years in advance of a rule issued by FDA.”

After a lot of online searching, I did find one other story in the media agreeing that the idea of deadly pizza boxes was a bit overstated. The Daily Meal website shared a report from the “Scott’s Pizza Tours” blog headlined simply “Pizza Boxes Do Not Cause Cancer.” Reports the writer, “my contacts at the leading U.S. pizza box company don’t use any of the banned chemicals and they produce boxes for 75 of the top 100 chains.”

I’m not writing here to suggest a grass-roots movement for or against pizza, pizza boxes, the FDA, or the media. My intention is merely to note (albeit for the thousandth time) that, when it comes to news about paper and packaging products, we can’t always ensure that consumers are getting all the facts. It’s important to be aware of the misperceptions so we can respond. Industry professional organizations are a great source of ideas, information, and inspiration for letting consumers know about the forest products industries’ positive impact on society.

And most of all, I wanted to let everyone know that, in spite of what they may have read, they should feel free to enjoy their pizza responsibly—whether home made or carryout.

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