Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?
New testing indicates major fast-food chains are still serving up PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) with some of their most popular takeout foods, despite increasing consumer demand and legislative action to phase out the use of toxic PFAS chemicals.
The testing included a total of 38 food packaging samples from 3 states in 16 locations and 6 fast-food chains. Nine out of the 38 samples were replicates, resulting in a total of 29 unique sample items for comparison. The testing of total fluorine to screen for the presence of PFAS was performed by an independent laboratory in February 2020. The study was conducted by the Mind the Store campaign and Toxic-Free Future.
Nearly half of all food packaging samples tested positive for fluorine above the screening level, including for fast-food favorites such as McDonald’s Big Mac, Burger King’s Whopper, and Sweetgreen’s salads and warm bowls. Sweetgreen recently announced it is phasing PFAS out of all of its bowls by the end of 2020 and has already introduced PFAS-free bowls in one market. All bags we tested that are used for sides such as chicken nuggets, fries, and cookies also tested positive. At the salad chains, 100% of all molded fiber packaging we tested was above the screening level. The thick paper packaging, intended to be compostable, is used by many chains as an alternative to plastic.
PFAS are used to make materials grease- and water-resistant. They are commonly found in products such as apparel, carpeting, upholstery, and food packaging. These “forever chemicals” are dangerous to humans and wildlife and have contaminated the drinking water of millions of people across the U.S. Exposure to PFAS is an especially high concern in the context of COVID-19 since they are linked to suppression of the immune system as well as chronic conditions that increase the severity of COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of only a small number of chemicals within the PFAS class in food packaging but continues to allow the use of many others, despite the risks posed. During the past few years, intense scrutiny on the dangers of PFAS has led to PFAS food packaging bans in San Francisco and Berkeley and states including Washington and Maine. Outside the U.S., Denmark enacted a ban on PFAS in cardboard and paper food packaging, which goes into effect July 1, 2020. Major retailers and restaurants including Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Whole Foods Market are also moving away from PFAS.
But this newest study reveals work remains to ensure major burger and salad chains use safer, readily available PFAS-free packaging.
The one bit of good news? Burger chains seem to have largely switched to PFAS-free paper for their paper-wrapped burgers. Only one of seven burger wrappers tested above a screening level for fluorine, suggesting PFAS treatment. This is an encouraging sign that food chains are finding and using safer, healthier alternatives.