The Back Page: Taking it back 80 years

Originally published in The Converter in February 1940

Sanitary Paper

Public must be correctly informed of the safety of food containers

ONE of the principal uses of paper and paperboard is for packaging of food products, for which paper has proved to be admirably adapted. It also meets competitive requirements because it permits decoration and printing, which adds sales value.

However, the principal reason why paper has found such extensive use in the food industries is because in its natural state it has been found relatively free from micro-organisms. Because of its sanitary efficiency and because of its relatively low cost as compared with other types of containers, which paper has replaced in many instances, the paper package has become a fixture in the food industry and has contributed greatly to the ease with which food products may be distributed.

The entrance of the paper package into the food industry was not free of competition.  This competition was relatively normal until the paper container for mild reached extensive use. Then, and particularly because mild is subject to rigid sanitary regulation, questions with respect to the sanitary suitability of paper for liquid food products arose and health authorities have faced difficult problems of decision in approval of the new type of package.

These questions had the effect of making an issue of the sanitary character of paper for food packaging in many other cases.  A great deal of printed material has been distributed to the public with respect to the sanitary character of different materials, particularly paper, mush of which has not been scientifically sound and some of which has bordered upon subversive propaganda.

The importance of this whole movement was recognized by the Technical Committee of the American Paper and Pulp Association and last year, in cooperation with the Institute of Paper Chemistry, a program was set up which was designed to develop factual information with respect to the sanitary character of paper, procedure that could be recommended in operation that would insure fully adequate control of micro-organisms, and contact with public health authorities for the purpose of getting to their attention the true, scientific facts with respect to paper. Dr. Fred W. Tanner, nationally known bacteriologist of the University of Illinois, has assisted substantially in the development of the program.

Obviously, one of the most important first steps in such a program, after adequate information has been obtained, is the examination of sanitary codes which contain regulation with respect to the use of paper containers.  Problems involved in this approach have to do with the determination of objective measurements of sterility which may be feasibly applied to finished paper and also the whole question of mill inspection, which has been seriously proposed in numerous instances.

For instance, a regulation for single service milk containers which was proposed for incorporation in the 1939 edition of the United States Public Heath Ordinance and Code would prohibit the use in milk paper containers of paperboard containing bacterial counts in excess of 250 per gram. Moreover, such containers, and it was extended to container caps and covers, were required to pass through a bactericidal treatment equivalent to contact with paraffine for at least 25 seconds at temperatures not lower than 180° F. or for 35 seconds at temperatures not lower than 175° F.

The consideration of such proposals by health authorities immediately raised questions with respect to other types of paper containers, and proposals with respect to all liquid foods and sals with respect to all liquid foods and even in the case of dry foods were made to many health authorities. Most of these proposals would provide for mill inspection at periodic intervals by individual health agencies. The difficulties involved in such inspection can be easily visualized when it is understood that the United States as a whole the number of agencies which have independent jurisdiction with respect to sanitary matters mounts high up in the thousands.

It is plain that those who have made these proposals are not familiar with conditions of paper manufacture and with the facts that have been developed with respect to the presence of micro-organisms in finished paper. 

In the first place, there is no differentiation made between harmless and harmful bacteria. As a matter of fact, only saphrophytic bacteria have been found in paper and Escherichia coli, the generally accepted indicator of pollution, has never been found in paper or paperboard made under ordinary sanitary conditions.

Moreover, preliminary tests indicate no pathogenic organisms, even when the sheet at the wet end of a paper machine has been inoculated with them, have survived after passing through the dryers of a paper machine. It is not strange, therefore, that there is no record of disease epidemic that can be traced to the unsanitary character of paper used in the packaging of food.


It can be easily understood from this belief description that it is not in any sense an academic problem. It has real practical significance, from the point of view of the largest single outlet for paper.  It can be easily seen that according to present tendencies each mill might be required to install mirobiological control laboratories, and, moreover, submit to periodic inspection by any number of public agencies who are unfamiliar with the economic and practical phases of papermakeing.

Not only would such systems require expenditures of considerable sums of money, buy that would, at the same time, constitute a matter of great nuisance and inconvenience to the mill. And all of it in ignorance of the true facts!

Although the immediate problem relates to the manufacture of paper for conversion into paper milk bottles, it threatens to spread to all papers use din contact with foods, such as glassine, parchment, bread wrap, butchers wrap, frozen food containers, breakfast food containers, paper bags for foods such as flour, sugar, etc., and perhaps even to sanitary tissues. Already the finger is pointed in the direction of frozen food containers by the Boston Board of health and to liners of egg crates by still another agency.

In order to achieve the degree of cleanliness required of paper products, rigid microbiological control in the mill is not absolutely essential. A similar effect can be achieved by methods of satisfactory housekeeping in the mill, provided occasional bacteriological tests are made to determine freedom of the raw material from harmful micro-organisms.

To the extent that satisfactory housekeeping methods are not used some criticism may be justified. Carelessness in this respect, however, is rare, since it is bound to be evidenced in the quality, and consequently in the value, of the product produced. The steps that are normally taken to produce a marketable product are the very stepst hat contribute to the hygienic qualities of the paper produced, care in water purification practices, care in the use of chlorine and ammonia to reduce slime, etc.

It is clear that what the grades of paper that may be concerned with this situation are translated in dollars and cents, a very significant portion of the industry’s total production is represented.

The work of the Biological Control Committee seems to be clearly defined. The Committee seems to be clearly defined. The Committee must refute in some way some of the groundless arguments which have been used and attempt to prevent public acceptance of false premise.  The following procedure has been set up and activities are already well under way:

  1. To survey critically the literature on relation of micro-organisms to papermaking and the bacteriological condition of products which are made of paper.
  2. To determine the facts as to whether there might be changes in the industry which should properly be made by papermakers themselves without pressure from health officers.
  3. To appraise the lethal value of various steps involved in papermaking, such as cooking, chlorination and drying.
  4. To explain the true situation by addresses before appropriate groups and articles in pertinent journals.
  5. To sponsor investigations which will give facts of value for scientific papers and to secure factual information on which more general publicity can be based.
  6. To support a publicity program which will acquaint health officers and the consuming public with the facts.
  7. To act as a clearing-house for information concerning legislative, economic, and scientific trends, and to act as a source of uncontestable evidence for any section of the industry, either geographical or according to grades of paper, which is faced with local or isolated difficulties.

From the MONTHLY REVIEW of American Paper & Pulp Association, New York.