Food-Grade Plastic Bag Material Regulations – Who Knew?

While researching plastic bags used at grocery markets, I noticed in the search results that some manufacturers stated their bags complied with FDA regulations. Hmm…I knew about food-grade containers for storing food, but hadn’t thought about plastic wrapping and bag material regulations. Off I went to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website to learn more. The U.S. FDA website contains an abundance of information, including definitions, acronyms, links to specific regulations, consumer information, and much of it can be understood by a non-scientist like me.

FDA Food-Grade Plastic Bag Material Regulations

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)Below is a recap of some information and terminology from the U.S. FDA website that I found interesting or intriguing like Food Contact Substance.

Code of Federal Regulations – Title 21 – Foods and Drugs

“The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is a codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the Executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government. Title 21 of the CFR is reserved for rules of the Food and Drug Administration…”

Food Contact Substance

“…any substance intended for use as a component of materials used in manufacturing, packing, packaging, transporting, or holding food if such use is not intended to have a technical effect in such food…”

Indirect Additives Used in Food Contact Substances

“….In general, these are substances that may come into contact with food as part of packaging or processing equipment, but are not intended to be added directly to food…” and include:

  • Part 175 – adhesives and components of coatings
  • Part 176 – paper and paperboard components
  • Part 177 – polymers
  • Part 178 – adjuvants and production aids

Regulation Example

21CFR177.1520 Olefin polymers (this is the one that started my side trip)

 A Few Definitions

I had to look up some of the terms in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition.

  • monomer – a simple molecule that can form polymers by combining with similar molecules
  • polymer – a naturally occurring or synthetic substance consisting of giant molecules formed from polymerization
  • polymerization – the process of chaining together many simple molecules to form a more complex molecule with different physical properties, the changing of a compound into a polymeric form by this process
  • alkene – any of a series of unsaturated open-chain hydrocarbons containing a double bond…these compounds are sometimes said to be in the ethylene or olefin series

Plastic Produce BagMy more scientific spouse helped me understand this in lay-person terms. A polymer (plastic) consists of hydrocarbon molecules that are broken and reconnected into long spaghetti-like chains and like spaghetti can be made out of a variety of materials and are affected by cold and heat. Polyethelene, a plastic often used for food produce bags is made from an olefin polymer.

Think About It

The FDA regulates many facets of food that one might not realize, for instance substances that just touch food like wrapping or containers. Another thing they regulate is how recycled plastics may be used in relation to food.

Over a life-time, think how many foods and food-like substances you eat that are packaged in plastic in some manner. What goes in and what stays out of packaging are both important. Even what goes on a plastic bag is crucial, e.g. mercury based dyes would not be acceptable for printing on a bag one puts carrots in.

There is definitely more to a food-grade plastic bag than it just holds one’s vegetables, meat, or cereal.