Interview with Michel FONTAINE

Jul 2011
Environmental labelling in focus
Jul 2011

Interview with Michel FONTAINE

Today, citizens and consumers are highly concerned about health issues. So when consumer associations, echoed by the media, started wondering about the toxicity of some packaging components, triggering real debates, the French Packaging Council (CNE) decided to play a role in this matter by explaining the measures implemented by the packaging industry to meet hygiene and safety standards for all types of products.
Michel Fontaine, chairman of the CNE, here takes stock of the advances that have been made by the “Packaging, health and safety” working group


11_Pic01–  You wanted to discuss how the packaging industry takes hygiene and safety criteria into account …

For 50 years, the packaging industry has been a leader in the matter of hygiene, whether it be on product preservation, aids for transport and storage or the product life cycle in the consumers’ hands… Packaging is a real indicator of development within industrialised countries.
Our experts, directors and association representatives have met several times since October 2010 in order to discuss the crucial issue of the hygiene and safety of products throughout their life cycles and delivery to the consumer.


–  How has this group been working?

First, we wanted to put the advances in packaging into perspective. Consumers ask for a product that is both uncontaminated (in a sterile, neutral and preserved container) and safe (packaging with opening-indicator ensuring a good preservation, traceability…). The packaging industry is constantly working to improve those aspects, with the “pop-up” security seal for instance that was implemented by baby food jar manufacturers who wanted to put an end to contamination risks.


–   You also wanted to explain how dangers and risks are taken into account in this sector…

We thought it would be really useful to describe how the packaging industry responds to  health issues. Thus, we tried to figure out the distinction that has to be made between danger and risk. We tried to show how those concepts are taken into account by industrialists. Consumers often mix up “danger” and “risk”. “Risk” depends on how long one is exposed to danger and Public Health Agencies determine an acceptable threshold for consumers. “The dose makes the poison.”
Health regulations established by Public Health Agencies aim at determining the acceptable concentration under which people’s health is guaranteed. And of course, packagers fully respect those criteria!


–   Doesn’t the problem rather lie in the gap that exists between consumers’ expectations and the changes made by packaging industrialists?

Improvements often arise from fault notifications or consumers’ complaints, which industrialists try to answer as fast as they can. In the case of packaging changes related to evolving technologies or scientific and regulatory advances, the time needed to implement alternate solutions may vary from a few months to several years. And as science advances quickly, we also discover new hazardous substances.
100 years ago asbestos was not an issue, but now we know what risks it poses. Some NGOs claim that the same applies to Bisphenol A, so scientific experts in that matter will soon need to take a stand.
Besides, some industrialists are working in sectors where there is no regulation yet, so they try and work together to establish guides to good practice, which may be used as a basis for future legislation.


–  Today, communication about health is rather passionate, and no longer objective or scientific. So how should we act and react?

This is exactly what happened in the case of Bisphenol A, where France did more than a mere transposition of the European Directive. Topical issues, such as the phthalates one come to mind. Debates have shown that Parliament Representatives may have been under-informed upstream when they decided to prohibit all types of phthalates (on May 3rd, the members of the French National Assembly adopted a bill to prohibit the use of phthalates).


Generally speaking, I think we always need to anticipate. Industrialists should pay even more attention to the weak acceptance, the questions and criticisms of consumers who now express their opinions a lot on the Internet. And in the packaging sector, we must listen to their requests, analyse them and turn them into relevant concerns.
In the meantime, we need to keep raising awareness about the work made by the packaging industry, so that some of the polemical issues, often irrationally founded, are not passed on.
This is the main stake of our working groups, whose members have made remarkable progress on awareness-raising.


This interview can be downloaded from the Website.