The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a voluntary phase-out of certain types of grease-proofing agents on paper and paperboard food packaging. This phase-out comes after an FDA post-market scientific review and analysis from studies found bio-persistence of the grease-proofing substances.
The report found that some food packaging, including burger boxes, wrappers, disposable bowls, and bags for french fries, sides and desserts — used at popular restaurants such as McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and Wendy’s — may contain potentially hazardous PFAS chemicals. These chemicals help prevent grease and oil from seeping through the packaging.
The report came from Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit group, and the Mind the Store campaign, an initiative of the organization Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. They found that nearly half of the foods that were tested – at least one item from six chains – came in packaging that had probably been treated with PFAS.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are often called “forever chemicals” because they’re close to indestructible. There are nearly 5,000 types, and most haven’t been closely studied. Among the ones that have, many have been linked to harmful health effects, including decreased fertility, hormonal changes, high cholesterol levels, weakened immune system response, increased risk for certain cancers and low birth weight in infants.
As our knowledge of the health effects of PFAS evolves, understanding how they get into our bodies and the environment — where they may contaminate crops and water supplies — is critical. Given the widespread use of PFAS and the emerging evidence of toxicity of many compounds, the need to identify the various sources of exposure cannot be overstated.
Why PFAS in Food Packaging Is a Problem
The presence of PFAS in food packaging may not initially seem problematic to consumers because you don’t eat the wrappers. Yet PFAS are finding their way into our bodies. Studies involving people over 12 years old in the US have detected them in nearly everyone tested. Direct migration from packaging to food is one possible means of exposure. Some research has shown that people who cook at home more often may have lower levels of PFAS in their bodies.
But these chemicals are also used in a wide variety of products, such as some nonstick pans, waterproofing gear, and firefighting foam, and they’re used to make carpets and fabrics stain-resistant. The manufacture, use and disposal of these products, along with food packaging, could contribute to exposure, either directly or through environmental contamination.
PFAS in food packaging builds up in the environment and in drinking water and food because of what happens when we dispose of that packaging. Once they go into landfills, the chemicals can freely migrate, making their way into our food and water supply.
What the Report Found
In January 2020, the report’s authors collected 38 samples of food packaging from six fast food or fast casual chains in 16 locations in three states and Washington, D.C. An independent laboratory tested the samples. The lab looked for the chemical fluorine in each sample. Fluorine is a key component of any type of PFAS, which is why this is a common way to test for these compounds.
There was little fluorine in most burger and sandwich wrappers in the tests, an improvement from a 2017 study which found that nearly 40 percent of 138 wrappers tested contained PFAS.
The only burger wrapper that appeared to be treated with PFAS was for Burger King’s Whopper. McDonald’s Big Mac clamshell container also appeared to be PFAS-treated. Paper bags used for fries, sides or dessert items at both chains had high enough levels of fluorine to indicate PFAS treatment, as did a paper bag for a Wendy’s dessert.
At the more health-focused chains CAVA, Freshii, and Sweetgreen, every single molded fiber bowl or tray contained fluorine, indicating PFAS treatment, sometimes nine or ten times higher than the threshold used by the report’s researchers. These containers, often used in place of plastic, have been generally marketed as compostable, which gives consumers the idea that they’re eco-friendly. But PFAS doesn’t break down and can contaminate the environment.
Getting PFAS Out of Food Packaging
The sample size for this study wasn’t large enough to say how widespread the use of PFAS still is, but the study does help show that PFAS in food packaging is still a concern, especially for fiber bowls and trays.
Several other studies over the past three years have found PFAS in fast food packaging, which has helped spur market and regulatory changes. The FDA now prohibits a few PFAS chemicals in food packaging. Maine and Washington have passed restrictions on PFAS in packaging, as have cities like San Francisco and Berkeley. The New York State Legislature recently passed similar restrictions, though that bill hasn’t been signed by the governor.
At the end of July, the FDA announced that three PFAS manufacturers had agreed to begin voluntarily phasing out the use of another type of PFAS in food packaging after the agency raised concerns.