• December 8, 2021

The End Is Nearer for ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Food Wrappers

Inspired in part by the Silent Spring Institute study of fast-food containers, staff members from the advocacy groups requested unused wrappers from the three leading fast-food burger chains and three healthy food chains, at a total of 16 locations in New York City, Maryland, Seattle, and Washington, DC. They collected 38 samples, including some duplicates so they could compare the same wrappers from different geographic regions and make sure the results from wrappers from the same locations were consistent.

They placed the wrappers in sealed plastic bags, then turned them over to Galbraith Laboratories in Knoxville, Tennessee, an independent lab that performed tests on them to determine fluorine content. (Because PFAS are fluorinated compounds, detecting fluorine is an indicator of their presence.) The lab used a testing threshold of 100 parts per million of fluorine, a cutoff similar to the one used by compost certifiers who want to exclude items with PFAS. These levels don’t indicate a risk of incurring any particular health problem; they’re simply considered a reliable indicator of the chemicals’ presence.

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Overall, the lab found levels above the 100 ppm threshold in two of nine sandwich wrappers (from five different restaurant chains), in all the small paper bags they tested from the three fast-food chains, and in all molded fiber bowls they tested from the healthy food chains CAVA, Sweetgreen, and Freshii.

In particular, they found that a Big Mac clamshell box and McDonald’s fry and cookie bags exceeded the 100 ppm threshold of fluorine, although other wrappers for burgers, Egg McMuffin, and McChicken sandwiches did not. Cardboard boxes for McNuggets or fries also had low or undetectable fluorine levels. At Burger King, one Whopper wrapping out of three tested above that threshold for fluorine; bags for chicken nuggets and cookies also tested positive, although paperboard boxes did not. Only a cookie bag exceeded the screening level at Wendy’s. Ironically, the healthier outlets fared worse, as all the molded fiber bowls for grains or salad showed levels of fluorine that were higher than any levels detected in the fast-food wrappers.

The report drew immediate results—of just the type desired by the advocates. On the eve of its release, officials from the Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant chain CAVA announced that they would eliminate PFAS in their food packaging within a year. “At CAVA, we care about our impact on our communities and on the world at large,” a CAVA spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. “As part of our ongoing environmental and social responsibility efforts we are actively working to ensure our sustainable packaging continues to be responsibly sourced, compostable, functional, and now PFAS free. We are pledging to eliminate PFAS from our food packaging by mid-2021, and will publicly share progress on this commitment in the year ahead.”

Freshii, a healthy fast-casual chain, also says they will move toward alternatives. Veronica Castillo, Freshii’s vice president for marketing, told WIRED in an email: “Freshii is in the final stages of transitioning its 16- and 32-ounce pulp bowls to a version that is fully PFAS-free. Freshii intends to roll out these PFAS-free bowls in the early part of 2021, if not before.”

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