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Reusable foodservice packaging: Science review highlights need for robust hygiene measures; warns against restrictions

EPPA calls for national food agencies to review policy options and publish hygiene-guidance

A review of the food hygiene challenges present in replacing single use packaging items with reusables in the foodservice sector has emphasised that the transfer of foodborne disease remains a clear and present hazard to consumers.

In response, the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA) has called for EU food and public health authorities to be a part of policy debates on reusable packaging systems, and for national food agencies to protect consumers by providing businesses with detailed and specific guidance to minimise both the presence and transfer of bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Authored by Emeritus Professor David McDowell, the report reviews the risks of increased foodborne disease associated with any move to the wider use of reusable food service ware and systems in the absence of improved understanding and hygienic practices. It notes that reuse systems are inherently more complex than single use systems.  This complexity, which includes multi-location cleaning, sanitation, storage and transport, leads to greater risks of cross contamination.

The report highlights that the methods required to deal with the risks present in reuse systems are not novel but need to be applied in an effective and consistent manner by both businesses and consumers.  However, it states “there are many circumstances in which the continued use of single use packaging and service ware provides the only feasible option for maintaining adequate food hygiene, public health and consumer safety.”

Professor McDowell said, “Banning or reducing the use of food service disposables, in the absence of radical significant and unprecedented changes in good hygiene practice, will lead to greater persistence and circulation of foodborne pathogens within the human food chain, and increased risks of human foodborne illness in our community.

“Those rushing to replace food service disposables with reusable food service ware may need to think long and hard about the unexpected consequences in relation to increased foodborne illness among consumers, and potential litigation damages sought from food businesses involved in the more complex processes around the use of reusable food service items.”

In response, the President of EPPA, Antonio D’Amato, said: “The European Paper Packaging Alliance’s members innovate and invest to offer sustainable, circular, renewable and recyclable packaging solutions for Europe’s modern food economy.  We fully support the EU’s aim to move away from plastics and fossil-based resources, achieve climate-neutrality and sustain healthy ecosystems.  EPPA also supports the use of the Waste Hierarchy to achieve the best environmental outcomes, using holistic life cycle thinking.

“EPPA is clear that all policy options comparing single-use and reusable systems must fully consider the true environmental, social and economic impacts.  This is truer than ever in a world where epidemics are increasingly frequent[1].  In fact, several studies have shown that, in the first 20 years of the new century, the world has already experienced five pandemics, compared with only three in the previous century.  These studies warn that in our interconnected world the frequency of such pandemics is likely to increase.”

“Food safety and hygiene is non-negotiable, and it is critical that the complexity of reusable systems does not weaken Europe’s high standards.  We have therefore called on the European Food Safety Authority, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and national food safety agencies to be consulted as part of the policy-making process where reusable systems are considered as options.  We have also called on national agencies to issue food businesses with detailed and specific guidance on how to minimise both the presence and transfer of bacteria, fungi and viruses in relation to reusable systems.”


Notes for editors:

The report “Food hygiene challenges in replacing single use food service ware with reusable food service items” was commissioned and funded by the European Paper Packaging Alliance (EPPA)*.  The report :

  • summarises and assesses the background, challenges and available scientific evidence in relation to the food safety, public health and consumer safety aspects in relation to replacing single use plastic food service ware with reusable food contact items, which today are increasingly plastic.
  • outlines the significant dangers inherent in increased cross contamination with foodborne bacteria and viruses within the human food chain, and discusses the undesirable implications of the use of alternative reusable containers/packaging (i.e. increased persistence, spread, and recycling of foodborne pathogens within the retail/service/consumer stages of the human food chain);
  • notes the likelihood of increases in human illness by increased contact with, and consumption of, such pathogens, and outlines the poor levels of consumer hygiene.
  • highlights scenarios where the use of inadequately cleaned and sanitised reusable food service ware will break the food safety chain, facilitating the persistence and dissemination of pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and increasing the incidence and impact of foodborne illness.
  • notes special/restricted circumstances where alternatives are limited.

Dr David A McDowell is Emeritus Professor of Food Studies at the University of Ulster.  The focus of his academic career has been in food microbiology research, research evaluation, technology transfer, teaching, and the development and dissemination of food safety policy.

He has contributed to a wide range of national and international advisory and policy development committees, with reference to the ecology, persistence, dissemination and control of foodborne zoonotic pathogens (such as STEC, listeria, salmonella and campylobacter) within the food production, processing and service sectors

He has considerable experience as a participant in, and an assessor of, a wide range of national and international research projects, as well as leading/supporting subject and policy reviews in food microbiology, food safety, and antibiotic resistance in the human food chain. He is a member of the editorial boards of several national and international journals in the above areas and has published over 170 papers in peer reviewed journals.

Until March 2020 he was Deputy Chairman of the UK Food Standards Agency’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF).

*EPPA is a not-for-profit food and foodservice packaging association.  EPPA’s priority is to provide efficient environmental, low carbon and health-safe products to the European population, with improved recycling solutions. EPPA supports the efficient use of resources in all its forms and recognizes the major role that packaging, as an essential infrastructure, can play in that common objective.

Issued by:
EPPA, European Paper Packaging Alliance
Contact: Hans van Schaik, Managing Director
Tel. +31 70 312 39 17; E-mail: