Editor’s Note: This post was written by Erika Schreder, the Science Director for Toxic-Free Future, and Mike Schade, the Mind the Store Campaign Director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
There’s nothing like spending an evening on the couch with our families, binge-watching the Great British Baking Show and passing around a bowl of scrumptious popcorn. But that popcorn may be carrying a hidden hazard.
A new laboratory investigation commissioned by our groups has identified the likely presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in some store-brand products and food serviceware obtained at Albertsons and one of its subsidiaries, Safeway. Albertsons’s other subsidiaries that may carry these products include Vons, Jewel-Osco, Acme, Shaw’s/Star Market, Randalls and Tom Thumb. The tested products include dental floss, bakery cake plates, and the packaging for Albertsons’ store-brand organic and conventional microwave popcorn. Eight out of the ten tested samples from Albertsons and Safeway stores contained elevated levels of fluorine, indicating they were likely treated with PFAS.
Grocery chains like Albertsons and other retailers must “mind the store” to ensure that food contact materials and other products they sell don’t contain dangerous chemicals like PFAS.
Companies use PFAS chemicals in food packaging because they provide water and grease resistance. But these harmful chemicals can leach out of the packaging and get into food and our bodies, and after use, they can wind up in compost and the environment. PFAS have also been found in drinking water all around the U.S. Some PFAS remain in the human body for years and studies suggest exposure is associated to cancer, liver damage, and immune suppression.
Mom, can you pass the PFAS?
The investigation identified the following items, purchased at Albertsons and Safeway grocery stores, which were chosen because they were likely treated with PFAS:
- The bags of store brand O Organics popcorn (Butter and Simply Salted flavors) and Signature Select popcorn (Extra Butter and Kettle Corn flavors);
- Store brand Signature Care Mint Waxed Comfort Floss;
- Decorative plates used under store bakery cakes; and
- A hot bar clamshell container.
The only item we recently sampled that did not test positive for likely PFAS treatment was butcher paper.
This testing expands on sampling conducted in 2018 to gauge the extent of PFAS use in paper food packaging sold at and used by five major U.S. grocery chains. Our Take Out Toxics study focused on deli packaging such as takeout containers; this additional sampling included additional types of packaging, such as for microwave popcorn, some of which have been found to be likely PFAS-treated in other studies.
Samples were collected at Albertsons and Safeway stores in Boise, ID and San Jose, CA in February and March of 2019 by our coalition partners Conservation Voters for Idaho and Clean Water Action California. We sent them to Dr. Graham Peaslee’s lab at the University of Notre Dame, which measured the items for total fluorine content, a useful screen for the likely presence of PFAS chemicals.
Likely PFAS treatment or PFAS content was found in 8 of the 10 items tested:
Take Out Toxics
In Take out Toxics: PFAS Chemicals in Food Packaging, we found that nearly two-thirds (5 of 8) of the paper takeout containers tested, such as those used at self-serve salad and hot bars, contained elevated levels of fluorine, indicating they were likely treated with PFAS. Eleven percent (4 of 38) of bakery and deli papers tested were also likely treated with PFAS, including a bakery bag and sandwich wrapping paper. In that report, one out of 17 materials sampled from Albertsons tested positive for likely PFAS treatment. In the present study, we set out to investigate whether other food packaging from Albertsons might contain PFAS.
Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s act – what about Albertsons?
In response to the Take Out Toxics report, both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s pledged action on PFAS. In contrast, Albertsons has yet to make a public commitment on toxic PFAS. Nonetheless, Albertsons has made progress in other areas, such as significantly reducing the use of BPA in its private brand food packaging.
Just as the company worked to drive BPA out of its canned foods, Albertsons should ensure that food contact materials don’t contain highly persistent and toxic PFAS chemicals and ensure substitutes are safe. The company should also get out in front of city and state bans on PFAS that have been passed in places like the state of Washington and San Francisco by banning PFAS in its food contact materials nationwide.
As the second-largest dedicated grocery chain in America, with more than 2,200 stores and $60.5 billion in annual sales, Albertsons has the market power and a moral responsibility to ensure the food and products it sells don’t contain toxic chemicals like PFAS.
Update: Several months after this testing was completed, in September 2019, Albertsons disclosed that it “Worked with industry experts and replaced certain prepared food and bakery product packaging to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).”
We are pleased to see this step in the right direction, and we urge the company to build on it in the months and year ahead by developing and implementing a full action plan to phase out PFAS.
We noted this in a recent letter from the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and dozens of organizations from around the country, urging the company to take further action on PFAS.