New Study Shows Toxic Chemicals in Food Packaging from Big Chains

Testing suggests PFAS chemicals in packaging from McDonald’s and Burger King. NYS Legislature-passed PFAS Food Packaging Ban Awaits Governor’s Signature

ALBANY, NY — August 6, 2020 - In a new report released today, Clean and Healthy New York, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and its partners found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from multiple popular food chains contains potentially toxic chemicals. The new investigation shows that all six food chains sampled had one or more food packaging items that likely contain toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)—chemicals known to threaten human health.

The new study, Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzed packaging from six national food chains, including top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen. The testing suggests toxic PFAS treatment in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls. (See results in the chart below.)


In New York, legislation (S.8817 Hoylman/A.7939-C Fahy) passed both houses of the New York legislature last month with overwhelming bipartisan support. The strongest of its type in the nation, it would ban all intentionally added PFAS chemicals in food packaging by December 31, 2022. The Governor has until the end of the year to sign the bill into law.


“We’re done playing whack-a-mole with the chemical industry. Given that millions of New Yorkers are drinking PFAS-contaminated drinking water, it is essential that they not also eat food packaged with this hazardous chemical class,” said Kathleen A. Curtis, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York and co-leader of the JustGreen Partnership. “Now is the time for New York to lead the nation in protecting people and communities from this dangerous, unnecessary health hazard.”


“The findings of this critical study only reinforce the fact that many fast food chains continue to use dangerous, cancer-causing PFAS chemicals in their food packaging despite the wide availability and use of safer alternatives,” said Senator Brad Hoylman, the Senate bill sponsor. “Donald Trump’s FDA has failed to properly regulate PFAS chemicals, putting the health of families across New York at risk. Thankfully, New York stepped up to fill the leadership void by passing my legislation with Assembly Member Patricia Fahy to ban the use of these toxic chemicals in food packaging. I'm grateful to the JustGreen Partnership, Toxic-Free Future and the Mind the Store Campaign for their diligent work on this urgent issue and to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins for bringing this bill to the Senate floor for a vote. I urge Governor Cuomo to swiftly sign this bill into law to protect the health of all New Yorkers."


“I’m pleased that the state Legislature passed my legislation banning the use of carcinogenic #PFAS chemicals in food packaging like pizza boxes, take-out containers, and more,” said Assembly member Patricia Fahy, the Assembly bill sponsor. “PFAS chemicals are more broadly known for instances of contamination in municipal water systems and have exhibited negative and serious long-term health effects in people who've been directly exposed. Recently, studies have indicated that PFAS chemicals are present in a number of packaging used for unprepared and prepared foods, presenting a serious health-risk to New Yorkers – especially amidst a global pandemic. I urge the Governor to sign this commonsense legislation into law to further limit New Yorkers’ exposure to these dangerous chemicals.”


“This is an equity issue. Studies have shown that access to fast food is higher in communities with greater concentrations of Black/African American residents, making them more vulnerable to PFAS exposure from fast food packaging and its bioaccumulative effects,’” explained Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director and Director of Policy Initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “We thank Senator Hoylman and Assembly member Fahy for leading the way with their sponsorship of these bills, and we look forward to New York State protecting our communities from these harmful chemicals once it signs this best-in-nation legislation into law.”


“The findings in this report are especially bad news for residents of communities across the state that are grappling with PFAS-contaminated drinking water. The last thing they need is more exposure to these toxic chemicals through food packaging. New York State owes it to these communities to sign this bill into law,” said Eve Gartner, Managing Attorney for the toxics program at Earthjustice.


Scientists have found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems. “These toxic chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and asthma,” explains Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, Scholar in Residence at Duke University, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP). “PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.”


A consortium of scientists recently published a new scientific statement emphasizing the dangerous health impacts of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in food packaging, noting how easily these chemicals migrate out of packaging. “PFAS chemicals don’t ever break down. They permanently remain in the environment and easily move into people, persisting in our bodies,” adds Dr. Birnbaum.


Sweetgreen recently announced phaseout of PFAS from its bowls by the end of 2020. Other major retailers and restaurants committed to moving away from PFAS include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, CAVA and Whole Foods Market. This demonstrates the ready availability of safer, cost- and performance-effective alternatives. “These toxic chemicals continue to contaminate people and pollute the environment long after the disposable packaging is discarded. And there’s really no need for it,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director. “As the largest fast-food chain in the world, McDonald’s has a responsibility to its customers to keep them safe. These dangerous chemicals don’t belong in its food packaging. I, for one, am NOT ‘lovin’ it,’” Schade added.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of only a small number of chemicals within the PFAS class in food packaging, and just last week announced that manufacturers have agreed to phase out use of another subset of PFAS. However, FDA continues to allow the use of many PFAS. Mounting evidence on the dangers of PFAS exposure has led to the passage of restrictions on PFAS in food packaging over the last few years in San Francisco and Berkeley as well as in states including Washington and Maine. In Europe, Denmark enacted a ban on PFAS in cardboard and paper food packaging that went into force July 1, 2020.


Today, Clean and Healthy New York launched a letter campaign to Governor Cuomo urging him to sign the bill banning the use of PFAS in food-packaging materials.

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