New study indicates toxic chemicals used in take-out food packaging from popular chains

Media Contacts
Emily Scarr

State Director, Maryland PIRG; Director, Stop Toxic PFAS Campaign, PIRG


Baltimore —In a new report released today, Maryland PIRG Foundation, Clean Water Fund, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and partners found that some take-out food packaging from popular chains potentially contains toxic chemicals. The investigation found 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. 

Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzes packaging from six national food chains, including Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen, and includes packaging collected in Maryland. 

Testing found that items in two packaging categories—paper bags used for greasy foods along with molded fiber bowls and trays—most frequently tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting toxic PFAS treatment. Both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting toxic PFAS treatment. All of the paperboard items tested, like the cartons and clamshells used for fried foods and desserts at burger chains, were found to be below the fluorine screening level, suggesting that they are PFAS-free.

“We shouldn’t have to worry that our lunch is wrapped in packaging coated with toxic chemicals,” explained Emily Scarr, Maryland PIRG Foundation Director. “Is it really worth risking our health so our hands don’t get greasy?”

“Food packaging is full of toxic chemicals,” said Michael Bochynski, Clean Water Fund’s DC Program Coordinator. “If you care about what you eat, you should care about what it’s wrapped in.”

PFAS are chemicals used to impart grease and water resistance to food packaging, and are also used in some carpeting, upholstery, and apparel. Scientists often refer to PFAS as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. 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 chemicals don’t ever break down. They permanently remain in the environment and easily move into people, persisting in our bodies.”

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 chemicals migrate out of packaging.  

The investigation released today commissioned an independent laboratory to measure total fluorine in food packaging samples from six chains. The study found that at least one food packaging item from each of the food chains tested above the fluorine screening level, a common way to assess the use of toxic PFAS chemicals. 

“Whether the chains are serving burgers, fries, or salad, they owe it to their customers to serve it up in safe packaging,” explains Erika Schreder, Science Director at Toxic-Free Future and co-author of the study. “We found many instances of packaging that’s PFAS-free—there’s no reason for these chains to choose any food packaging that contains PFAS. Food chains like McDonald’s shouldn’t be using this toxic packaging.”

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 July 2020, the New York Legislature approved a bill to ban PFAS in food packaging, which now awaits the governor’s signature. In Europe, Denmark enacted a ban on PFAS in cardboard and paper food packaging that went into force July 1, 2020.

Without national regulation of toxic PFAS, food retailers are facing consumer pressure to address PFAS in food-packaging materials. Today, the Mind the Store campaign and its partners launched a petition to McDonald’s urging them to take action by committing to the elimination of PFAS in their food-packaging materials.

“Multiple major food chains have now announced new policies on PFAS. So, clearly, safer alternatives exist and are being used. Those that haven’t stepped up have the ability to do so,” 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.’” 

Four out of the six food chains studied do not have a public chemical policy to address toxic PFAS in their food packaging materials. Today, in response to the study, Cava announced it will eliminate PFAS from its food packaging by mid-2021. Sweetgreen also announced in March that it is phasing out PFAS from its bowls by the end of 2020 and has already introduced PFAS-free bowls in one market. Other major retailers and restaurants that have committed to moving away from PFAS include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market.

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Maryland PIRG Foundation
Maryland PIRG Foundation is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being. 

Clean Water Fund
Clean Water Fund’s mission is to develop strong grassroots environmental leadership and to bring together diverse constituencies to work cooperatively for changes that improve their lives, focused on health, consumer, environmental and community problems. Since our founding during the campaign to pass the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972, Clean Water Action has worked to win strong health and environmental protections by bringing issue expertise, solution-oriented thinking and people power to the table. 

The national Mind the Store campaign challenges big retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. The campaign coordinates the annual retailer report card that benchmarks and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies and implementation programs. 

Toxic-Free Future advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through advanced research, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow.