Food packaging contains dangerous chemicals, report says7 min read
The new report comes more than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, when the public has relied heavily on takeout and grocery deliveries.
More than 100 food products tested
The Consumer Reports investigation collected 118 food packaging products sold by 24 companies in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It tested those products for organic fluorine — a marker for PFAS. Researchers then sent samples of products with the highest levels to an independent laboratory that could perform more specific tests, said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist for advocacy at Consumer Reports.
“In Denmark we’ve seen both a decrease in noncompliance by industry from 60% to about 30% and a decrease in levels of PFAS in packaging products over the past 10 years,” Trier told CNN. “It does work to set limits and enforce them. It is possible to find alternative solutions and if one manufacturer can make packaging without PFAS, then it should be possible for everybody to do it.”
The Consumer Reports investigation found the highest indicators for PFAS — 876 ppm and 618 ppm — in two types of bags for sides at Nathan’s Famous restaurants.
High indicators of PFAS (in the 500s) were also found in a Chick-fil-A sandwich wrapper and in fiber bowls at Cava, a Mediterranean restaurant chain.
Indicator levels in the 300s and 400s were found in a bag of cookies at Arby’s, bamboo paper plates at Stop & Shop, and in a bag for both cookies and French toast sticks at Burger King.
Levels of PFAS indicators in the 200s were found in a Sweetgreen paper bag for focaccia, additional items at Cava, and in bags for french fries, cookies and Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s.
However, all of the companies listed had additional food packaging that tested at levels below 200 ppm. Four companies — Arby’s, Nathan’s Famous, McDonald’s and Stop & Shop — also sold food in packaging that had no detectable levels of PFAS, the report said.
The Consumer Reports investigation did not test packaging from every food product sold at each company.
“I would not urge consumers to take these brand names and only go to this one or that one, as this investigation only looked at just over 100 products,” said Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics, chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
“However, this will hold industry’s toes to the fire, so in that sense, I think it’s a valuable report,” he added. “Measuring and saying PFAS is there and it’s dangerous gets people’s attention, and companies tend to avoid attention like that.”
Health impact of PFAS
PFAS chemicals are in many products: nonstick cookware, infection-resistant surgical gowns and drapes, cell phones, semiconductors, commercial aircraft and low-emission vehicles. The chemicals also are used to make carpeting, clothing, and furniture resistant to stains, water and grease damage.
In the Consumer Reports investigation, the most common chemical found in the food packaging that was tested was PFOA, with PFOS coming in fifth, according to the report.
In addition to impacts on the immune system, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said studies in humans and lab animals have found links between certain PFAS chemicals and an increase in cholesterol levels, alterations in liver enzymes, a higher risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer, small reductions in infant birth weights and an additional risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women.
As environmental groups and the public began to take notice of the health impacts of the chemicals, manufacturers started to voluntarily phase out the use of PFOS and PFOA in the US. Between 1999 and 2014, blood levels of PFOS in Americans had declined by more than 80% and blood levels of PFOA had declined by more than 60%, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated.
Studies in Denmark have shown that PFAS do “migrate from the paper into the food,” Trier said. “Even though it was not 100%, we still saw substantial transmission. In general, transmission from packaging to food is increased as the temperature of the food rises and the time spent in wrapping materials increases.”
In response to the 2018 report, Whole Foods became the first grocery chain in North America to publicly commit to remove PFAS from takeout containers and deli and bakery paper. Other companies have followed suit, including Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, Amazon.com, Cava, Chipotle, Freshii, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Sweetgreen, Trader Joe’s and Wendy’s, according to Toxic-Free Future.
In the new investigation, Consumer Reports tested 13 food packaging products from retailers that had previously committed to phasing out PFAS. Seven of the 13 had levels of PFAS above 20 ppm, the report said.
Nathan’s Famous, which Consumer Reports said also has not made a public commitment to reducing PFAS, told CNN the company had begun phasing out the bags. “One of our goals in this complete package redesign is to reduce PFAS,” said Phil McCann, vice president of marketing at Nathan’s Famous. “Full transition will be complete by December 2022.”
Cava, which had previously pledged to reduce PFAS but had five out of six products with indicators between 200 ppm and 548 ppm, told CNN that “due to a multitude of factors related to the pandemic, and especially global supply chain shortages, the transition to eliminating added PFAS, which began in August of 2021, is taking longer than planned. Our teams are working with our suppliers to complete the transition within the year.”
A McDonald’s spokesperson said less than 7.5% of the company’s global food packaging contained added PFAS at the end of 2020 and said the company was continuing its search for alternative materials that offered proper grease-resistant barriers, with a goal of reducing deliberately added PFAS by the end of 2025.
Sweetgreen told CNN the company was “proud to share that we are currently in the process of rolling out new PFAS-free focaccia bags that will be available in all Sweetgreen locations by the end of Q2.”
Jennifer Brogan, director of external communications and community relations for Stop & Shop, told CNN the company could “confirm that these Nature’s Promise brand plates have been removed from all store locations.”
A spokesperson from Arby’s told CNN in an email that the company has “minimal packaging materials containing PFAs and is on track to have PFAs removed from all packaging products by the end of 2022.”
Actions the public can take
Experts say people who want to avoid PFAS in their takeout and food delivery packaging should favor companies that have pledged to remove the chemicals.
Take food out of the container as soon as you receive it, and never reheat food in its original container. Instead, remove your food and heat it in ceramic or glass containers, Trier said.
The Consumer Reports investigation found some of the highest levels of PFAS were in paper bags (192.2 ppm) and molded fiber bowls and trays (156.8 ppm). Paper plates tested at 149 ppm, and food wrappers and liners came in at 59.2 ppm.
Don’t be fooled by “environmentally friendly” claims — they don’t guarantee a product is PFAS-free. When Consumer Reports tested those products, some had levels of PFAS above 100 ppm, and most had some detectable levels, the report said.
Experts also suggest reducing the frequency of takeout meals to once a week or less, and recommend that people instead make food at home.