Some of America’s favorite restaurants have just committed to taking something off consumers’ plates.
Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes, announced plans late Wednesday to phase out so-called “forever chemicals’ in its food packaging worldwide by 2025. Chick-fil-A announced a similar commitment Wednesday evening on Twitter to phase out the chemicals in packaging by the end of this summer.
The companies’ embrace of doing more to stamp out chemicals comes in response to a just-published investigation by Consumer Reports that detailed how they found toxic chemicals in a majority of the food wrappers and packaging from chain restaurants and grocery stores that were tested.
The chemicals, called PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are used in hundreds of products to make them resistant to heat, water, oil and corrosion. They are often called forever chemicals because they are resistant to breaking down naturally in the environment and can remain in people’s bodies for years. PFAS from grease-resistant food wrappers can seep into food and contaminate soil and water when packaging reaches landfills.
Consumer Reports tested multiple samples of 118 food packaging products from major restaurant and grocery chains, including paper bags for french fries and wrappers for hamburgers, as well as paper plates and molded fiber bowls for salads. The organization found PFAS chemicals in more than half of the food packages tested.
Although frequent exposure to these chemicals, even at low levels, has been linked to a growing list of health problems, including immune system suppression, lower birth weight and increased risk for some cancers, the Food and Drug Administration has not issued any guidance or set limits for the chemicals in food packaging, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports.
Denmark set a limit of 20 parts per million to protect public health, and California’s ban on the chemicals in food packaging, which goes into effect in 2023, requires levels below 100 ppm.
The Environmental Protection Agency had established a standard for what it considered safe levels of PFAS in drinking water. Yet, in November, the agency began work to drastically lower their standard for PFAS considered safe in drinking water, in light of more recent studies, Hansen said.
Hansen said his bigger concern is that there are 9,000 man-made PFAS chemicals, with 660 of them commonly used in restaurants and retail, according to the EPA, but virtually no toxicity assessments for most of those chemicals.
Consumer Reports found measurable levels of PFAS chemicals in wrappers from fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King, and even in packaging from companies such as Trader Joe’s and Cava that promote more healthful fare.
Nathan’s Famous hot dogs had products with some of the highest levels of these chemicals in paper bags used for sides. Other food wrappers with particularly high levels included a paper bag for French toast sticks or cookies at Burger King, a paper bag for cookies at Arby’s, and a wrapper for a sandwich wrap at Chick fil-A.
Nathan’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Arby’s has very few packaging materials with PFAS, said spokeswoman Rachel Russell, and is on track to have all PFAS removed from packaging products by the end of this year.
Chick-fil-A has been working on eliminating the chemicals since 2018, spokeswoman Chelsea Lee said.
“Chick-fil-A has eliminated intentionally added PFAS from all newly produced packaging going forward in our supply chain. While some legacy packaging may still be in restaurants, it is expected to be phased out by the end of this summer,” Lee said. “We’ve spent the last four years working closely with our suppliers, an independent lab and third-party validator.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Burger King’s parent company said: “We are dedicated to only using ingredients and materials that are safe for guests and employees and continuously review our policies to ensure we remain good corporate citizens. The Burger King brand has required that any added perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) be phased out from all approved, guest-facing packaging materials globally by the end of 2025 or sooner.”
For consumers hoping to minimize their chemical consumption, Consumer Reports recommends transferring fast food out of its packaging when possible and not reheating food in the original packaging. They also suggest having domestic water tested for PFAS, and patronizing retailers that have pledged to reduce their use of the chemicals. Previous commitments to phase out PFAS have been made by Cava, Chipotle, Freshii, McDonald’s, Panera, Sweetgreen, Taco Bell and Wendy’s.