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

Media Contacts
Danielle Melgar

Former Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Testing suggests toxic PFAS chemicals in packaging for McDonald’s “Big Mac” and Burger King’s “Whopper”


CHICAGO —In a new report released Thursday, Illinois PIRG Education Fund, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and their coalition partners found that some take-out food packaging from popular restaurant 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 the big three hamburger chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and the health-minded Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen. 

Testing found that items in two packaging categories—paper bags used for greasy foods and 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 screening level. Conversely, all of the paperboard items tested, including cartons and clamshells used for fried foods and desserts at the burger chains, registered below the fluorine screening level, suggesting that they are PFAS-free.

“We shouldn’t have to worry that our lunch is exposing us to toxic chemicals,” says Danielle Melgar, Illinois PIRG Education Fund’s Toxics Program Advocate. “Is it really worth risking our health so our hands don’t get greasy?” 

PFAS are used to make food packaging grease- and water-resistant. They are also used in some carpeting, upholstery, and apparel, despite their links to medical issues.  A consortium of scientists recently published a new statement emphasizing the dangerous health impacts of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in food packaging, noting how easily these chemicals migrate out of packaging.   

“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.”

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 packaging item from each of the restaurants tested above the fluorine screening level, a common way to assess the presence of PFAS. 

“Whether the chains are serving burgers, fries, or salad, they owe it to their customers to serve it up in safe packaging,” says 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 continues to allow the use of many PFAS. However, last week, the FDA announced that manufacturers have agreed to phase out use of another subset of 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, California, as well as in entire states including Washington and Maine. Last month, 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 on July 1.

Without national regulation of toxic PFAS, consumers are ratcheting up pressure on food retailers to address PFAS in food-packaging materials. Thursday, the Mind the Store campaign and its partners launched a petition to McDonald’s urging it to commit to eliminating PFAS in its 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,” says 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. 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.