Burger King, Chick-fil-A Among Major Chains to Ban 'Forever Chemicals' in Food Packaging


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Key Takeaways

  • Toxic “forever chemicals” contaminate food packaging from some of America’s largest restaurant and grocery chains, a new report shows.
  • The chemicals can leach into food and the environment, posing serious health problems.
  • Chick-Fil-A and Restaurant Brands International—the parent company for Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes—said they will phase out PFAS in its food packaging by 2025.

Your last hamburger order may have come with an unexpected side of toxic chemicals.

A study published last week by Consumer Reports indicated that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS or “forever chemicals,” are present in food packaging from major fast food and grocery chains.

Consumer Reports tested 118 food packaging products, including bags for French fries and molded fiber bowls for salads. The researchers found PFAS in some packaging from every retailer included in the study, even the ones that promote healthier practices such as Trader Joe’s and Cava.

Nearly a third of the products were found to have high levels of PFAS. In some instances, the researchers detected PFAS in companies’ food packaging even after they had promised to phase them out.

In response to the findings, Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes, announced that it will phase out PFAS from its packaging worldwide by the end of 2025. Chick-fil-A announced a similar commitment on Twitter, saying it has eliminated “intentionally added PFAS from all newly produced packaging” and will phase out all legacy packing by the end of this summer.

What Is PFAS?

PFAS describes a class of more than 4,700 chemicals which are used in products to make them resistant to water, oil, and heat. Manufacturers sometimes add PFAS to cardboard and paper food packaging to prevent oil, salad dressing, and other greasy liquids from seeping through. These forever chemicals can leach into food and contaminate water and soil when PFAS-treated packaging is thrown out. These chemicals linger in the environment for hundreds or thousands of years.

PFAS exposure is linked to a growing list of health problems, such as impaired kidney and thyroid function, an increased risk of developing several cancers, reduction of birthweight, immune system suppression, and more.

“We’re pleased that Burger King and Chick-fil-A plan to phase out the use of toxic PFAS chemicals in the packaging they use for their menu items,” Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said in a statement. Ronholm said he hopes these decisions will prompt other food chains will “make a commitment to protect public health” by ending the use of PFAS.

How Did PFAS Wind Up in Food Packaging?

Food companies often rely on PFAS in paper or cardboard products because the oil- and heat-resistant properties of the chemicals help bowls and bags maintain their shape when loaded up with hot or greasy food.

How to Test for PFAS

The simplest way to test for PFAS is to screen for total organic fluorine content in a product, since all PFAS contain some organic fluorine and there are few other sources for the compounds. While there are some tests to detect specific PFAS compounds, looking for organic fluorine allows researchers to test for levels of all PFAS, including those that haven’t yet been well studied.

Nearly a third of the products tested by Consumer Reports had total organic fluorine levels above 20 parts per million (ppm), and almost a fifth had levels greater than 100 ppm. An adequate limit for PFAS levels is 20 ppm, but manufacturers should always strive for lower levels, according to Consumer Reports.

While the study doesn’t represent all the food packaging from each company, it gives a good sense of which chains are still relying on PFAS. Some of the products with the highest PFAS levels include an Arby’s paper bag for cookies, a Cava fiber tray for kids’ meals, McDonald’s paper French fries bag, and Sweetgreen’s bag for focaccia.

Nathan’s Famous had products with the highest average levels of PFAS, with Chick-fil-A following close behind.

Even companies that claim to be phasing out PFAS in certain products—such as Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Whole Foods Market—still had detectable organic fluorine in those items. Several of these companies said they didn't intentionally add PFAS to their products, but the chemicals wind up there due to contamination in manufacturing and the use of recycled products that were originally made with PFAS, according to the report.

“To the person that ends up consuming the food that is contaminated with these PFAS, it doesn’t matter whether it was intentional or unintentional—the result is going to be the same,” Sydney Evans, a science analyst at Environmental Working Group, told Verywell.

“I understand that that represents a challenge. But that doesn’t mean that these manufacturers and the companies that are using these packaging products that are contaminated with PFAS don’t have a responsibility to pay attention to this, to be vigilant about it, and also to be transparent," Evans said.

PFAS Regulations Are Necessary

Current tests can detect about 30 specific PFAS compounds. Consumer Reports researchers sampled a portion of products and found that less than 1% of food packaging with organic fluorine was found to contain one of these well-known compounds.

Evans explained that the absence of these compounds suggests manufacturers may be replacing certain PFAS with other fluorinated compounds. These “regrettable substitutions” are not as well studied but can be just as detrimental to human health, she said.

Advocates for regulating PFAS maintain that it’s important to outlaw the use of the whole class of chemicals, rather than singling out specific chemicals.

In 2020, a cohort of scientists published a statement warning of the health harms that can arise when toxic chemicals from food packaging migrate into food and are digested by humans. The migration of these chemicals from the package into the food is especially likely when the food is fatty, salty, or acidic.

“Adding PFAS to food packaging also releases these chemicals into the environment during manufacturing and when the packaging is thrown away,” Rebecca Fuoco, MPH, spokesperson for Green Science Policy Institute, said in an email to Verywell. “Cleaning up contamination will be expensive and take decades or more, if it’s even possible.” 

Despite identifying PFAS in many of the food packaging samples, the researchers also noted that several of the products had levels below the 20 ppm threshold. This suggests some food companies have found suitable alternatives to replace the toxic chemicals.

“PFAS in food packaging is used for grease resistance, which is a matter of convenience, not necessity,” Fuoco said. “There are non-fluorinated alternatives for grease- and water-resistance that many companies are already using, like packaging with wax or clay coatings.”

Next Steps for Minimizing PFAS Exposure

Advocacy organizations, particularly Toxic-Free Future, have been pushing for RBI to ban PFAS for years. Other fast-food companies, including Wendy’s and McDonald’s, have already banned PFAS from their products.

Consumer Reports launched a petition calling on Arby’s and Nathan’s—the companies with the highest average levels of organic fluorine in these tests—to stop using PFAS in their food wrappers.

Starting next year, California will restrict the allowable PFAS in food packaging to less than 100 ppm total organic fluorine. Other states, including Washington, New York, Maine, and Vermont, will similarly phase out PFAS in food packaging by the end of next year.

Evans said she is encouraged to see states and local governments setting allowable PFAS limits. Still, “a couple states isn’t enough—we need to see that on a national level,” she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency said last year that it would take steps to reign in production of and contamination by PFAS in drinking water. The agency laid out a roadmap to set enforceable PFAS limits, but health and environmental advocates said at the time that the plan wasn’t nearly stringent and broad enough to address the issue.

“Unfortunately, PFAS are so ubiquitous that it’s not a problem you can shop your way out of,” Fuoco said. “It’s an impossible burden for consumers, which is why we need the government and industry to act.”

What This Means For You

It’s difficult to avoid PFAS, given how prevalent they are in consumer products and the environment. To minimize your exposure from packaged food, you can:

  • Eat fresh food rather than take-out or other packaged food
  • Remove food from packaging as soon as possible
  • Reheat and store food in containers without PFAS, like those made of glass and stainless steel
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Ramírez Carnero A, Lestido-Cardama A, Vazquez Loureiro P, et al. Presence of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food contact materials (FCM) and its migration to food. Foods. 2021;10(7);1443. doi:10.3390/foods10071443

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.