Report Finds Evidence of Potentially Toxic Chemicals in Food Chain Packaging

In the earliest days of the pandemic, a lot of people out there were probably wiping down and disinfecting any delivery orders they received, in the hope of keeping themselves safe from Covid-19. If evidence from a new report on fast food packaging is to be believed, however, it sounds like there are some reasons for concern that long predate the virus itself.

According to a recently released report on packaged food goods put together by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families in partnership with advocacy groups Toxic-Free Future and Mind the Store, it would seem that the food packaging used by a number of fast food and fast casual chains tested positive for traces of toxic PFAS, which are often used in packaging for their grease, stain, and water-resistant properties.

Results from tests performed at an independent laboratory showed that the fluorine (the “F” in PFAS) levels in at least one packaging item from Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s exceeded the screening threshold. That included paper bags used across all three chains, as well as the wrapper for Burger King’s Whopper and the container used to serve McDonald’s Big Mac. It’s worth noting that a majority of the tested packaging (67{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}) was below the threshold, however.


It’s also not just greasy fast food joints who end up relying on PFAS in their packaging. In fact, packaging from tested health-conscious chains was more likely to test positive for fluorine (90{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}). The molded fiber bowls of trendy Mediterranean outlet CAVA, as well as healthy-minded chain Freshii, and salad spot Sweetgreen, were all shown to have PFAS above the testing threshold.

The problem isn’t unique to restaurants, either. PFAS are a common group of more than 4,700 chemical compounds used often in our daily lives, appearing in everything from cookware to cell phones. However, it’s increasingly clear that they may not exactly be the best thing for the planet—or public health. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences notes that scientists don’t really know the half-life for PFAS (the time it takes for 50{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of the chemicals to disappear). While CNN notes that certain more egregiously harmful PFAS were taken out of consumer products in the early 2000’s, there’s evidence that PFAS of all sorts are linked to liver damage, immune disorders, cancer, and endocrine disruption (similar to the problems caused by DDT).

If there’s any good news, it’s that the restaurant chains studied seem to be aware of the problem, with many in the process of removing PFAS from their packaging. The reporting seems to have prompted Cava to announce the removal of PFAS from its packaging by mid-2021. Back in March, Sweetgreen set a goal of eliminating them by the end of the year. In a statement sent to CNN, McDonald’s notes that it has “eliminitated significant subset classes of PFASs from McDonald’s food packaging across the world,” adding that they’re “exploring opportunities with supplier partners to go further.”

So, yes: fast and fast casual food packaging isn’t the healthiest thing for you or the planet, but it sure sounds like the PFAS problem goes a lot deeper than that. Hopefully greater awareness can lead a push to bigger change once, you know, we get around to dealing with our current public health challenges.

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