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Why perishable liquid foods need deeper EU policy assessment

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Every day, we rely on food items such as milk, juices, nectars and plant-based drinks for our daily nutrition. But do we know how these high-quality perishable liquid foods reach our homes?

The EU produces 154 billion liters of perishable liquid foods[1] each year,[2] and making them safe and available to all Europeans is fundamental for the food industry. These types of foods would decay and spoil over short periods of time if not properly processed, packed or kept at temperatures between 4C and -18C. Failure to properly protect such foods could pose risks to human health and hinder the acceleration of the sustainable food systems transition in Europe.

Fortunately, proven solutions to safely handle sensitive liquid foods already exist, especially those provided by aseptic processing and packaging, such as paper-based beverage cartons. Here, everything in the production chain is commercially sterile, including food, packaging materials and equipment, as well as the environment in which the food is packaged.

With the proposed EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), European policymakers have a clear opportunity to play their part in protecting EU citizens’ access to sufficient everyday perishable items, without compromising safety. And they can do that while minimizing food loss and waste and reducing CO2 emissions.

The role of aseptic packaging and technology in protecting perishable liquid foods

Over 70 years ago, Tetra Pak pioneered the use of aseptic processing and packaging solutions, that help keep perishable liquid foods safe and flavorful for up to a year, without the need for refrigeration or preservatives, while also retaining their color, texture, taste and nutrition.

In contrast, non-aseptic solutions offer a much shorter shelf life of one to four weeks[3] for perishable foods and beverages.

Over 70 years ago, Tetra Pak pioneered the use of aseptic processing and packaging solutions.

Keeping perishable foods safer for longer also means the risk of generating additional food waste is lowered when compared to non-aseptic systems. Research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production states that on average each EU citizen wastes 127kg of food per year[4] interestingly enough, this is almost twice a citizen’s average body weight.

Without the use of aseptic packaging and technology there can also be health risks due to the increased growth of pathogens. To be more specific, perishables would need to be maintained at pH <3.7 and kept between 4C and -18C along their entire value chain to exclude at least bacterial foodborne pathogens.[5] 

Due to their high share of renewable materials, aseptic beverage cartons also score better from a climate-impact perspective when compared to other packaging options for perishable liquid foods.[6] 

For these reasons, EU producers of milk, juice and nectars continue to prefer the combination of aseptic filling technology with aseptic beverage cartons: three-quarters of the milk sold in the EU is packaged in beverage cartons,[7] together with almost two-thirds of juices.[8]

Aseptic beverage cartons also score better from a climate-impact perspective.

The next question is whether aseptic beverage cartons are recyclable. And the answer is yes — they are collected and recycled at scale where waste management and recycling infrastructure exists. This is the case in the EU, which has a more than 50 percent collection for recycling rate.[9] The industry has already invested approximately €200 million to increase the capacity for beverage carton recycling in the EU and plans to invest a further €120 million by 2027.[10]  Simultaneously, Tetra Pak is investing €100 million per year and will continue to do so over the next five to 10 years to further enhance the environmental profile of cartons, including the research and development of packages that are made with a simplified material structure and increased renewable content.

The need to integrate food security into policymaking

The EU’s proposal for the PPWR sets a clear direction of travel: to reduce packaging waste and make all packaging recyclable or reusable by 2030. While we are supportive of this ambition, we believe that mandatory reuse targets for perishable liquid foods could lead to unintended consequences, such as increased food safety risks for consumers and reduced access to those living in remote areas, together with potentially higher loss and waste.

This is not to say that reusable packaging has no role to play. In fact, we think that both reusable and single-use recyclable packaging systems, such as beverage cartons, will play a role in the transition to a circular economy. However, it is our view that reuse targets should provide the flexibility to invest in reusable solutions where it makes sense and where they provide a better overall environmental performance than single-use recyclable alternatives.

Reuse targets should provide the flexibility to invest in reusable solutions where it makes sense.

In reusable packaging systems, for example, everyday items like dairy, plant-based drinks and some juices, as well as nectars, would necessitate the use of cold chain distribution systems — leading to a redesign of the value chain while presenting a shorter shelf-life.[11]  We therefore call for European policymakers to take a deeper assessment and integrate food security as a key part of the equation. The specific processing and packaging needs of perishable liquid foods must be taken into account in the PPWR to ensure that EU citizens can continue to access sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

[1] Perishable foods are defined in EU legislation under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 as foods which, from a microbiological point of view, are highly perishable and are therefore likely after a short period to constitute an immediate danger to human health.

[2] Sources: EDA, AJAN and Statistica

[3] Extended shelf life milk-advances in technology, Rysstad and Kolstad, 2006

[4] Avoiding food becoming waste in households – the role of packaging in consumers’ practices across different food categories, Williams, Lindström, Trischler, Wikström and Rowe, Journal of Cleaner Production, 2020.

[5] Growth of food-borne pathogens Listeria and Salmonella and spore-forming Paenibacillus and Bacillus in commercial plant-based milk alternatives, Klaudia Bartula, Máire Begley, Noémie Latour, Michael Callanan, FOOD MICROBIOLOGY, 2023.

[6] 20-011-Circular Analytics_ACE – Full report_2020-12-18 (beveragecarton.eu)

[7] https://www.beveragecarton.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ACE-Impact-assessment-study-of-an-EU-wide-collection-for-recycling-target-of-beverage-cartons-Roland-Berger.pdf

[8] https://aijn.eu/files/attachments/.598/2018_Liquid_Fruit_Market_Report.pdf  (p. 7)

[9] https://www.beveragecarton.eu/news/ace-announces-increased-recycling-rate-for-beverage-cartons/

[10] https://www.beveragecarton.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/ACE-Impact-assessment-study-of-an-EU-wide-collection-for-recycling-target-of-beverage-cartons-Roland-Berger.pdf

[11] FDA guidance: APPENDIX 4: Bacterial Pahogen Growth and Inactivation, Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance (fda.gov)

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