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Packagers tell insects: 'Stop bugging us!'

New EPA rule simplifies the procedures for gaining a tolerance exemption.Arrival of insect repellent approved for use in food packaging heralds new era of chemical coatings that ward off bugs and germs.

Packagers of dry foods may soon be hanging "Insects keep out" labels on their paperboard boxes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to approve the first-ever registration of an insect repellent for food packaging, in this case a product called RepelKote(TM) from Pactiv Inc. (Lake Forest, IL).

Methyl salicylate, the active ingredient, is a synthetic version of naturally occurring wintergreen oil. It is already used in a number of food products. But because Pactiv wants to use it as an insecticide, the product fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).

Bob Torla, the EPA official handling the Pactiv petition, says the EPA has granted the company a technical registration, which allows it to process the methyl salicylate into a product and ship supplies of it from place to place. The only thing EPA needs to do before granting Pactiv final approval is make sure the Food and Drug Administration has approved other components in the packaging for use with food. That is more a formality than anything else, Packaging World is told.

The EPA expects many more applications from companies seeking to register biochemicals and biocides. Under current rules, the EPA must publish a rule exempting the company from getting an EPA tolerance for the pesticide in the food packaging. The EPA normally has to set a tolerance level for a pesticide, both for its levels in food, and its levels in the individual packaging components, which are considered "inert" ingredients.

Establishing a tolerance can take several years. But now the EPA is doing away with the requirement for publishing a tolerance exemption for the packaging materials. The agency published a direct final rule on March 4 that exempts certain inert ingredients from the definitions of "pesticide chemical." The exception applies to inert ingredients that are components of food packaging, such as paper and paperboard, coatings, adhesives and polymers. The action became final on May 4, 1998. The EPA retains the responsibility for approving tolerances for active ingredients in food.

Adding packaging functions

The emergence of RepelKote is a reflection of the increasing demand among food companies for packaging that is impermeable to insects and germs. The demand has been sparked in good part by a flurry of food safety rules published by the Clinton administration, some ordered by Congress, some not.

Mark Knorr, a marketing executive at Montell Polyolefins (Wilmington, DE), which sells polypropylene films for snack foods, says there is a potentially big market for packaging materials impregnated with biochemicals and biocides. "This kind of packaging will become big if people can surmount the technical hurdles," says Knorr. He describes those hurdles as "not insurmountable, but difficult."

One biocide that has been tested is chlorine dioxide. It is being tested on packaging for food such as macaroni. A particularly promising food application, given the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new HAACP regulations, is in overwrap for beef carcasses as they come off the slaughtering line.

What RepelKote does

Tony Petrelli, vice president of sales and marketing for the Folding Carton Div. of Pactiv Packaging, says he has presented RepelKote to various major food manufacturers during the past two-and-a-half years. "Their response has been extremely positive," he explains. "Numerous customers are just waiting for the final EPA approval before commercializing the product." Pactiv has a letter from a federal agency, which Petrelli did not want to identify, confirming that its testing proved RepelKote safe and effective.

The packagers that Petrelli has contacted account for about 400 million folding cartons/yr. Pactiv manufactures 125 million cartons a year at five plants in the U.S. The company will probably up that production somewhat to meet the expected demand for RepelKote. But the company's strategy for taking advantage of the chemical depends primarily on licensing it to other converters.

Dry food manufacturers who use RepelKote in their packaging will be in the somewhat ticklish situation of admitting their products have had bug problems in the past. That may explain why a spokesman from Kellogg, Battle Creek, MI, failed to provide a comment about his company's prospective interest in RepelKote.

Keith Schopp, a spokesman for Ralston Purina, St. Louis, MO, a major pet food manufacturer, was more forthcoming. He says his packaging department is familiar with the Pactiv product. "But we have no need for it at this point," Schopp adds. He admits that insect infestations are an issue at processing facilities for any grain-based product. "But after our products leave our plants, they are sterile," he says. He agrees, however, that insects can attack the product and its packaging at other points along the distribution chain, up to the retail outlet.

Ralston's response aside, there is expected to be a pretty healthy market for insect-repellent packaging. So Pactiv will undoubtedly have competition. The EPA's Torla says a second company has applied to the EPA for clearance to sell a similar product. But because that petition has not been announced in the Federal Register, Torla declines to identify the supplier.

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