Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, two of the largest US grocery store chains, have pledged to take action to eliminate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) from some food packaging – commitmentsthat could lead to a domino effect across the entire grocery sector.

The actions taken by these two companies signal that toxic PFAS chemicals are increasingly becoming a sticky issue for grocery retailers, restaurant and fast food chains, food packaging companies and chemical suppliers.

The commitments made by Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s were in response to the release of our report, Take out toxics: PFAS chemicals in food packaging, which found PFAS chemicals are likely present in takeout containers and other food packaging sold at top grocery retailers.  

PFAS chemicals in food packaging

PFASs have been linked to liver damage, harm to the immune system, and cancer, and can stay in people and the environment for a long time.

Harvard researchers found that water sources for an estimated six million US residents are contaminated at levels exceeding federal standards.

‘Some PFASs are used for grease and water resistance in food-contact materials (FCMs). The chemicals can leach into the food, where consumers are exposed as they eat,’ – Mike Schade and Erika Schreder

Some PFASs are used for grease and water resistance in food-contact materials (FCMs). The chemicals can leach into the food, where consumers are exposed as they eat.

PFASs have also been detected in compost that included food contact materials, and these mobile chemicals have been shown to be taken up by crop plants.

Last summer, our Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and the Environmental Health Strategy Center wrote to almost 80 grocery, restaurant and fast food chains demanding action on both PFASs and phthalates in food packaging. We also investigated places where PFASs might be hiding in common food packaging and FCMs used or sold at leading US grocery stores.  

We collected 78 samples across 12 states and sent them to a laboratory for total fluorine analysis to determine likely PFAS treatment. Items tested included paper takeout containers, bakery and deli papers, microwavable trays, and baking supplies like muffin cups.

Samples were collected from five of the nation’s largest grocery stores: Ahold Delhaize (parent of Food Lion, Stop and Shop, and Hannaford), Albertsons, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market (Amazon).

We found:

  • ten out of 78 samples of all food packaging samples tested were likely treated with PFASs;
  • five out of eight takeout containers were likely treated with PFASs. And of those, four out of the five analysed takeout containers from Whole Foods Market were likely treated with PFASs; and
  • four out of 38 deli and bakery papers tested were likely treated with PFASs.

Here’s the good news: in many cases, retailers use or sell packaging that is free of PFAS treatment, indicating that PFAS-free alternatives are widely available and competitively priced.

Grocery retailers begin to take action – but more is needed

In response to the report, Whole Foods Market removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging that tested positive for likely PFAS treatment from its store shelves, a massive undertaking. This is a step in the right direction, and we are now calling on Whole Foods to take the next step and ban PFAS in all food contact materials.

Trader Joe’s also pledged action, telling the media that the company has asked vendors to avoid the use of PFASs in packaging its products.

Retailers in Europe may be far ahead of US chains. Denmark-based Coop has already made progress in removing PFASs from food packaging for products like microwavable popcorn.’Our Mind the Store campaign plans to leverage the commitments we won from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to increase pressure on other leading grocery, restaurant and fast food companies to follow suit in the months ahead,’ – Mike Schade and Erika Schreder

Our Mind the Store campaign plans to leverage the commitments we won from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to increase pressure on other leading grocery, restaurant and fast food companies to follow suit in the months ahead.

Regulatory risks growing for retailers and brands

PFASs are not only facing “retail regulation” but also increased action by policy makers. Our report was released on the heels of policies adopted by Washington state and San Francisco restricting PFASs in certain food packaging. Since our report was published, Berkeley, California passed an ordinance that requires all disposable takeout containers to be both compostable and PFAS-free.  

This is only the beginning. Other cities and states are expected to follow, underscoring the need for food retailers to get out in front of the regulatory curve. On 6 February, SAFER States announced at least eight states (Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont) will consider policies to eliminate or reduce PFASs in food packaging during this year’s legislative sessions. Other states are considering action on PFASs in firefighting foam and drinking water.

These chemicals also face greater scrutiny at the federal level by the newly formed bipartisan Congressional PFAS task force and the EPA.

Additionally, in October, Congress took bipartisan action to protect drinking water from contamination by passing legislation that directs the Federal Aviation Administration to allow airports to use PFAS-free firefighting foam. And in Europe, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) is proposing to lower the tolerable intake of the PFAS chemicals PFOS and PFOA in food.

Recommendations for food retailers

Retailers have an important role to play when it comes to eliminating consumer exposure to PFAS chemicals. They have both the power and the moral responsibility to eliminate and safely replace toxic chemicals such as PFASs in order to “mind the store“.

We call on grocery chains and other food retailers to:

  • adopt and implement public policies with clear quantifiable goals and timelines for reducing and eliminating PFASs in all private-label and brand-name food-contact materials;
  • publicly report on progress and announce when their products are PFAS-free;
  • agree to meet the new Washington State ban on PFAS use in food packaging nationwide; and
  • develop comprehensive safer chemicals policies to reduce and eliminate other toxic chemicals, such as hormone-disrupting phthalates, in food contact materials.

We trust retailers to provide the best for our families. It’s only fair that they enact sensible policies to protect our food, health, and environment.

The views expressed in contributed articles are those of the expert authors and are not necessarily shared by Chemical Watch.

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