Fast-food restaurants should ditch packaging coated in ‘forever chemicals’

Some fast-food restaurants are moving quickly to get the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS out of food packaging, but others have not committed to phasing them out.

PFAS in food are a significant source of exposure for many people. The chemicals can get into food through PFAS-contaminated irrigation water or through sewage sludge applied to food crops. They can also migrate into food from PFAS-coated food packaging.

Consumption of fast food, which uses lots of this type of packaging, has been shown to increase exposure to PFAS.

At least 17 fast-food companies have committed to stop the use of PFAS-coated food packaging, in some cases after pressure from consumer advocacy campaigns like Mind the Store. Some claim to have already phased out use of the chemicals, like Panera, with its baguette wrappers, and Chipotle, with its burrito bowls. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Restaurants with PFAS commitments

  Pledge date Phase-out date Link to statement Details of phase-out
Cava 2020 2022 Cava statement Cava began to phase out PFAS packaging in Aug. 2021 but recently stated the transition is taking longer than planned. The new estimate is by the end of 2022.
Burger King 2022 2025 Restaurant Brands International In March 2022, RBI announced it would require any added PFAS be phased out of all approved guest-facing packaging materials by the end of 2025 or earlier. 
Chipotle 2020 2021 Chipotle’s statement; The Counter article; Toxic-Free Future Chipotle stated in its 2020 sustainability report it had completed the transition away from PFAS in burrito bowls and anticipated replacing kids trays by the end of 2021. 
Freshii 2020 2021 CNN article; Toxic-Free Future Several news articles have reported that the company has pledged to switch to PFAS-free packaging by early 2021. However, the company has not provided any updated information. 
McDonald's 2021 2025 McDonald's statement McDonald's eliminated PFOA and PFOS from packaging in 2008. In 2021, McDonald’s stated that all guest packaging materials would be PFAS-free by 2025. 
Panera 2019 2022 Panera Sustainability Report;
Toxic-Free Future
Panera reported in 2021 it removed PFAS from baguette bags in 2020 and is actively working to remove PFAS from remaining to-go packaging by the end of 2022. 
Sweetgreen 2020 2022 The Counter article; Toxic-Free Future Sweetgreen started to adopt packaging without PFAS in 2020. Some news articles have reported that Sweetgreen intended to phase out PFAS packaging by the end of 2020. But Sweetgreen reported in 2022 it was still trying to remove PFAS in some packaging.
Taco Bell 2020 2025 Yum Foods statement;
Taco Bell statement
Taco Bell and its corporate owner Yum stated it plans to phase out styrofoam and polystyrene globally by 2022 and make all consumer-facing packaging PFAS-free by the end of 2025. 
Tim Horton's 2022 2025 Restaurant Brands International In March 2022, RBI announced it would require that any added PFAS be phased out of all approved guest-facing packaging materials by the end of 2025 or earlier. 
Wendy's 2020 2021 Wendy's statement Wendy's stated in its 2020 corporate responsibility report that the company would eliminate PFAS from consumer-facing packaging in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2021. 
Chick-fil-A Unknown 2022 Chick-fil-A statement Chick-fil-A reports it has eliminated all intentionally added PFAS for new packaging and anticipates legacy packaging will be phased out by the end of summer 2022.
Starbucks 2022 2023 Starbucks statement In March 2022, Starbucks committed to eliminating PFAS in its food packaging from all stores in 2023. It anticipates eliminating PFAS from U.S. stores by the end of 2022. 
Popeye's 2022 2025 Restaurant Brands International In March 2022, RBI announced it would require any added PFAS be phased out of all approved guest-facing packaging materials by the end of 2025 or earlier. 
Shake Shack Unknown 2022 Shake Shack tweet There are no statements on Shake Shack’s site about PFAS, but the company tweeted in March 2022 it does not use PFAS in any of its packaging. 
Nathan's Famous 2019 2022 Maine PublicNathan's Famous Nathan’s Famous announced in March 2022 that it began removing PFAS from its packaging in 2019 and anticipates it will stop using packaging with PFAS by the end of 2022. 
Arby's 2022 2022 CNN; The Washington Post  An Arby’s spokesperson told CNN and The Washington Post that Arby’s has minimal packaging materials containing PFAS and expects that PFAS will be removed from all packaging by the end of 2022.
Jack in the Box 2022 Unknown Green Century Fund In March 2022, 95 percent of shareholders voted to remove PFAS from the chain’s food packaging.

Several grocery stores have also made commitments to stop using PFAS-coated packaging.

But some fast-food chains have not taken steps to eliminate these chemicals from their food packaging. EWG could not find any commitments to phase out PFAS out on the companies’ websites, in public statements, or in news reports. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2: Restaurants without PFAS commitments

A&W Auntie Annie's Bojangles Buffalo Wild Wings Carl's Jr.
Checkers Church's Chicken Culvers Dairy Queen Del Taco
Dunkin Five Guys Habit Burger Hardee's In-N-Out Burger
Jersey Mikes Jimmy John's Kentucky Fried Chicken Little Ceasars Panda Express
Papa John's Papa Murphy's Pizza Hut Potbelly Qdoba
Quiznos Raising Canes Rusty Taco Sonic Steak N' Shake
Subway Taco Del Mar Whataburger Whitecastle Zaxby's

“Forever chemicals” have been linked to serious health concerns, including cancerharm to fetal development and reduced vaccine effectiveness.

Leading scientists have argued we should eliminate non-essential uses of PFAS, such as food packaging, as quickly as possible.

Phase-out is slow

Recent test results released by Consumer Reports show that PFAS are still widely used in food packaging, even among retailers that have committed to moving away from them, like McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell. The test results showed they all used packaging with detectable levels of organic fluorine, a strong indicator of PFAS.

PFAS were even found in packaging used by companies that claim to have already phased them out, like Sweetgreen and Chipotle.

Voluntary commitments by manufacturers and retailers – in this case, the fast-food companies and grocery stores – go only so far in addressing widespread PFAS contamination. Even voluntary efforts by fast-food chains to end use of the chemicals due to marketplace pressure won't solve the issue.

What’s essential is for the Food and Drug Administration to step in to quickly ban the use of all PFAS in food packaging.

Get Your FREE Copy of EWG's Guide To Avoiding PFAS Chemicals

The FDA dragging its heels

But the agency has been slow to take action to protect consumers from the chemicals.

The FDA has understood since 1966 that PFAS could increase cholesterol and cause liver lesions. It has banned just a handful of PFAS from food packaging, and only then in response to petitions from advocacy organizations or industry reports that they are no longer using certain PFAS.

The FDA initiated a voluntary phase-out of some additional PFAS in 2020 but gives manufacturers until 2025 to get products off the shelves.

States are also acting ahead of the FDA. Seven have banned PFAS from food packaging, and nine others are considering similar bills this year.

The FDA should follow the lead of retailers and states. In 2021, public health groups petitioned the agency to ban all PFAS from food packaging. Congress has also introduced bipartisan legislation, the Keep Our Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act, that would ban PFAS from food packaging beginning in 2024.

Tell Congress: Stop the PFAS Contamination Crisis

We need your help to protect our water from toxic PFAS chemicals.

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