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How retailers can stop packaging food with “forever chemicals”

Our new guides for supermarkets and quick-service restaurants will help ensure all PFAS are removed from food packaging

The Mind the Store Campaign, in partnership with Toxic-Free Future, has developed new guides for grocery and quick-service restaurant chains. We’re offering straightforward steps for chains to make sure their food packaging is truly free of all PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals are commonly added to paper and fiber-based food packaging for grease or water resistance, and it’s hard to tell which packaging contains PFAS and which is free of the chemicals. Our new guides will help chains find a clear path to adopt and implement policies to go PFAS-free.

Our brand-new investigation into PFAS at top fast-food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, and fast-casual chains Sweetgreen, Cava, and Freshii, indicates that PFAS is still used in food packaging at some of the nation’s largest food chains. Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to the quick-service restaurant industry. In our 2018 investigation into PFAS in food packaging from five major grocery chains, testing of packaging suggested PFAS treatment. In 2019, follow-up testing of other food packaging from one of those chains also showed several items with levels of fluorine suggesting PFAS treatment.

Retailers must do more to get these unnecessary toxic chemicals out of food contact materials.

The need to ban PFAS from food packaging is clear

Exposure to some PFAS has been linked to serious health impacts, including cancer, thyroid disease, and suppression of the immune system, which puts us at greater risk of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. PFAS from food wrappers can not only migrate into food and end up in people, but when food packaging with PFAS is disposed of, the chemicals can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air. The chemicals are used once in the packaging but can last forever in the environment.

Stop the chemical “whack-a-mole” game 

It’s critically important for retailers to ban the entire PFAS class, not just some PFAS chemicals. Some PFAS chemicals have been phased out of consumer products as data about health hazards has arisen chemical by chemical. But they have been replaced by other PFAS chemicals, in a classic case of regrettable substitution or chemical “whack-a-mole.” Research recently published by scientists at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) shows the PFAS in current use are bioaccumulative and more toxic than FDA previously acknowledged. It is inevitable that as scientists study each of the thousands of PFAS chemicals, they will keep finding health hazards. To avoid regrettable substitutes, the entire class must be phased out.

Momentum for PFAS-free packaging keeps building

Some retailers have already made a commitment to reduce or eliminate the entire PFAS class from food packaging:

  • In response to our new study, Cava committed to eliminating PFAS from its food packaging, including molded fiber containers and other items, by mid-2021. Freshii made a similar commitment on the very same day.
  • Sweetgreen and Chipotle announced in March 2020 that they would phase PFAS out of their molded fiber bowls by the end of the year, serving as a model for an aggressive timeline.
  • In January 2020, Taco Bell announced it would remove PFAS from all of its “consumer-facing packaging materials,” but not until 2025.
  • In November 2019, we noted that Panera Bread planned to switch its baguette bags to PFAS-free paper in all cafes by June 2020.
  • In September 2019, the nation’s fourth-largest grocery chain Ahold Delhaize (parent of companies including Food Lion and Giant Food) announced its intention to restrict PFAS in private-label food packaging but has not yet provided a timeline.

States around the U.S. are also stepping up to ban PFAS from food packaging. Over the last few years, Washington and Maine have enacted bans on PFAS, and the state of New York is now very close to enacting similar legislation. Retailers must get out in front of the inevitable regulation.

Our recommendations for retailers

The best choice is a safer reusable material. These can be used for on-site dining or as part of a reusable takeout container program for regular customers taking food to go. But since most retailers currently use paper packaging at least some of the time, they need strong policies to ensure the safety of this packaging.

Whether you’re a retailer who has already made an initial commitment to phase out PFAS, or if your company hasn’t yet but you want to do the right thing, our “how-to” guides for grocery and restaurant retailers can help.

We aim to break down what may seem like a daunting task into manageable steps, covering:

  • the elements of a strong policy to set your company up for success;
  • the importance of ensuring suppliers test the relevant food-contact materials for total fluorine and conducting your own verification testing;
  • how to evaluate the test results;
  • suggestions on how to move to a safer alternative; and
  • the importance of transparency.


  • A guide for grocery store chains: banning PFAS in food-contact materials (PDF)
  • A guide for quick-service restaurant chains: banning PFAS in food-contact materials (PDF)
  • Our list of sample PFAS-free paper food packaging alternatives (PDF).