Toxic chemicals found in food packaging at Sweetgreen and McDonald's, and experts say 'these substances migrate into the food you eat'

fast food
Christopher Flowers / Unsplash
  • An investigation by Consumer Reports found toxic PFAS chemicals in packaging used by multiple fast food brands.

  • McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, Burger King, and Sweetgreen were included in the report.

  • Several restaurants have pledged to phase out the affected packaging.

Fast food wrappers and containers from eight different restaurant chains were found to contain PFAS, or "forever chemicals," at soon-to-be illegal levels, in an investigation published by Consumer Reports Thursday.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are notoriously long-lasting. The chemicals don't naturally break down in the environment, and they can build up in the body over time. Long-term exposure to PFAS has been linked to an increased risk of some cancers, immune system suppression, and problems with fetal development.

Several states have passed laws banning or limiting the intentional use of PFAS in food packaging, but the chemicals are so widespread that they may creep in inadvertently.

Nearly everyone who has been tested for PFAS in the US has some level of the compounds in their blood. Recent research has shed light on ubiquitous sources of PFAS exposure, including food, water, and consumer products.

Consumer Reports' latest investigation focused on PFAS in food packaging. The chemicals are commonly used to make paper or cardboard grease-resistant — and fatty, salty foods are all the more likely to absorb PFAS from their wrapping, according to a 2021 review in the journal Food.

"We know that these substances migrate into food you eat," Justin Boucher, an environmental engineer at the Food Packaging Forum, told Consumer Reports. "It's clear, direct exposure."

Testing for indicators of PFAS

Consumer Reports tested more than 100 food packaging products from 24 restaurant and grocery chains across the country in fall 2021.

Since there are thousands of known chemicals in the PFAS class, investigators tested the materials for fluorine, a standard indicator of PFAS.

There's no national standard for fluorine in foods or food packaging, but some states have begun using the indicator to regulate PFAS. California established a limit of 100 parts per million organic fluorine in all food packaging that will be fully effective beginning January 1, 2023.

Of the 24 fast food and supermarket chains included in the Consumer Reports study, eight of them — Arby's, Burger King, Cava, Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, Nathan's Famous, Sweetgreen, and Taco Bell — had at least one type of packaging tested for fluorine levels exceeding 100 ppm.

PFAS found in every brand tested, including bags for fries and baked goods

Grease-resistant paper bags used for chips, cookies, and fries were a common culprit across restaurant chains. The bags tested for hundreds of ppm of fluorine at nearly every chain where they were sold.

Not all of the materials tested contained detectable levels of fluorine, but every restaurant included in the investigation had some piece of packaging test positive for the compound, indicating the widespread presence of PFAS.

However, it's possible to make packaging nearly PFAS-free.

"We know from our testing that it is feasible for retailers to use packaging with very low PFAS levels," Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said in the report "So the good news is there are steps that companies can take now to reduce their use of these dangerous chemicals."

Insider has contacted each of the brands for comment.

Several restaurant and supermarket chains included in the report told Consumer Reports that it would be near impossible to remove all traces of PFAS from packaging. Many have committed to gradually phasing PFAS out of their food packaging in recent years. However, some packaging from those restaurants still had indicators of the chemical at the time of Consumer Reports' testing.

Cava, Chipotle, Freshii, Panera Bread, Sweetgreen, and Wendy's have all said they would remove PFAS from some or all of their packaging by the end of 2021; McDonald's and Taco Bell intend to remove the chemicals from "consumer-facing packaging" by 2025.

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