ILSI Europe Webinar: Consumer questions about microplastics in food – the science perspective

Consumer questions about microplastics in food and beverage

the science perspective - ILSI Europe Webinar

Expert perspective

The webinar was organised on 29 November 2021 and it was hosted by Dr Todd Gouin and Prof Bart Koelmans, both contributing to the ILSI Europe Microplastics Initiative

Experts contributing to the event were:
MSc Jana Weisser, Technical University of Munich, DE
Dr Olivia Osborne and MSc Frederique Uy, Food Standards Agency, UK
Dr Sabine Pahl, University of Vienna, AT

Consumer questions

The event was free and wide open for interested audiences.
Consumers were welcome to submit questions about microplastics in food and beverage to the experts both in advance via a form and during the event.

The questions were answered in the discussion part of the webinar and the live Q&A session.

Wide audience interest

Consumer questions about microplastics in food – the science perspective audience food safety

The speakers introduced three main aspects which drive the consumer concern about microplastics found in food and drinks and are the main focus of researchers.

On the one hand, the currently limited capacities to reliably detect and quantify plastic particles in complex matrixes (such as foods and beverages), poses a challenge to accurately estimate human exposure to microplastics.

Additionally, there are difficulties in estimating the potential human intake from various sources (i.e., dietary intakes, environmental pollution or even inhalation) which proves challenging in evaluating their potential health effects. As well as, carrying out a risk assessment. Therefore, the recommendations for safe levels and efforts to mitigate their presence are pending.

Finally, as the current scientific evidence has data gaps and still lots of unknowns, the perceptions of the risks related to microplastics are often compared to the perceived risks of other potential environmental hazards (e.g., chemical pollutants).

What do consumers want to know about microplastics?

Most of the questions consumers asked were about possible ingestion of microplastics with food or beverage are to do with the particles' sources, the potential risks they pose for consumer health and suitable mitigation strategies that individuals can undertake to limit their own exposure.

All those questions are actively explored by researchers and currently tentative answers are available. Data gaps were identified and discussed. While many reports focus on microplastics in drinking water, sea food, and sea salt, some hint that such particles are present in a variety of fresh and processed foods. At the same time, an important note needs to be made, that in many cases, especially, when considering fish and sea foods, the microplastics particles are often found in parts of the organism that are generally not consumed.

The question about the sources of microplastics in food is also a complex one. While contamination from production lines and packaging is possible, so is the contamination from preparation at home and atmospheric deposition. To make this estimate more precisely, a harmonised methodology and standardisation of analytical methods are necessary and challenging to achieve.

In summary, there is limited information on the potential human health effects from microplastics and a comprehensive risk assessment still cannot be done.

Trust and open discourse are key for consumers to understand the potential risks but also the context in which they are present when it comes to microplastics in food and beverages. The analytical methodologies and exposure estimates are improving constantly, which allows for a continually improving risk assessment of their potential effects. Strategies to reduce the occurence of microplastics in the food in the first place are of vital importance for the protection of consumer and reduction of the consumer concerns about their health effects.