Foodservice Footprint pack2 Chemical cocktail proves a headache Out of Home News Analysis

Chemical cocktail proves a headache

An inconsistent approach to chemical use by food brands and regulators is concerning campaigners. David Burrows reports.

Major foodservice brands have been criticised after PFAS – or forever chemicals – were found in some of the packaging items they use but not in others. Research in 17 countries by IPEN found that McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Jolly Time sell food in PFAS-free packaging in some countries but continue to use PFAS-tainted wrapping in other countries. 

One hundred and nineteen samples of food packaging were tested. The results showed that 64 of the samples (54%) contained PFAS, including fast-food packaging from major fast food chains. Four samples had PFAS at levels above EU limits for PFOA and/or for long-chain PFCAs. The highest PFAS concentrations were consistently found in plant-based molded fibre products (like bowls, plates, and food boxes) advertised as biodegradable or compostable. 

PFAS are known to migrate from food packaging into food, and consumption of food that was packed in PFAS-treated paper is associated with PFAS levels in human blood. 

“PFAS are widely used in single-use food packaging and tableware especially for fast food, and people are exposed when they eat PFAS-packaged food,” said IPEN global researcher Jitka Straková, the lead author of the study. “Since fast food is especially popular among youth, and PFAS can disrupt the bodies’ natural hormones, there is a serious concern that young people may be impacted at critical periods of development.” 

The report highlights the example of a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper from Denmark, where PFAS are restricted in food packaging. The wrapper showed background contamination, but no intentional PFAS treatment. However, analysis of the same wrapper from Germany and the Czech Republic, where no PFAS legislation on food packaging is in force, showed intentional PFAS treatment. 

“This example shows inconsistency in McDonald’s PFAS policy,” the authors of the research noted. “It is able to find alternatives but does not use them in all places of its operation.” 

Viable alternatives to PFAS-treated paper and cardboard food contact materials exist and are already in use. Several samples from every tested product category in the study contained no PFAS.

The food companies were asked for their policies on using PFAS. None has yet provided a substantive response, IPEN said. Footprint approached all the brands for comment. 

IPEN wants to see food companies “quickly phase-out PFAS” and for governments to “move swiftly” toward a global ban on PFAS as a group. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, infertility, and endocrine disruption. 

Denmark and some US states have regulated PFAS in food contact materials and some have banned PFAS as a class in certain products. 

PFAS-free in foodservice

In research published in September 2021, Irish environmental charity Voice found TOF (total organic fluorine – an accepted proxy for PFAS content) levels in moulded plant-fibre packaging advertised as compostable that were 6.5-12 times the 100 ppm set in the EU standard for packaging suitable for industrial composting (EN13432). The samples were limited but the findings raise concerns – and not only regarding direct human exposure to the chemicals: PFAS can also leach into the soil when they are landfilled or composted, from where they could find their way into water supplies and the food chain.

Food brands and packaging companies have largely stayed silent on the chemicals used, pointing to the EU standards and laws they adhere to. Some have already been spooked enough into acting though. Restaurant Brands International (which owns Burger King) and Yum (which owns KFC and Pizza Hut) are among the companies to have committed to remove PFAS from packaging by 2025 (Yum is also removing phthalates and BPA). 

Research by environmental charity Fidra in 2020 revealed significant levels of forever chemicals were present in 90% of food packaging tested, including bakery and cookie bags. All products tested from high street chains and supermarkets, with the exception of greaseproof baking papers, were found to contain the chemicals. The highest concentrations found in UK food packaging were 300 times the limit for new Danish laws.

Earlier this month, NGOs including Fidra, as well as CHEM Trust, Marine Conservation Society, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Wildlife & Countryside Link, urged the UK government to legislate to encourage alternatives to PFAS to be developed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry also recently called on the UK government to overhaul its drinking water standards, after new analysis revealed more than a third of water courses tested in England and Wales contained medium or high-risk levels of PFAS.

In the UK, banned forever chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which have both been linked to certain cancers as well as immune and hormone system effects, have been found in untreated water samples. The CHEM Trust recently said Europe is facing a PFAS pollution crisis


Three PFAS and their related substances have been found to be among the most highly toxic chemicals known and are banned globally. But most current approaches to regulation look at the thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one or in small groups, with each group review taking several years. 

There is a growing body of evidence that pesticides can become more harmful when combined, a phenomenon known as the cocktail effect’This is of concern to campaign groups and NGOs who have been calling for more regulatory action to dramatically reduce the use of all chemicals used across the food supply chain.

In 2019, the Soil Association and PAN UK exposed how mixtures of pesticides commonly found in UK food, water and soil may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife. Their report, ‘The cocktail effectshowed around a quarter of all food, and over a third of fruit and vegetables, consumed in the UK contained pesticide cocktails, with some items containing traces of up to 14 different pesticides. The report also revealed evidence of pesticide cocktails in the environment: mixtures of ten different chemicals were found in UK soil and water with the potential to affect wildlife like birds and bees, the report’s authors warned. 

Last month, analysis of the UK government’s testing programme by non-profit PAN UK showed residues of 19 different pesticides (up from 16 in 2016) in the 72 wine samples tested, including nine chemicals with links to cancer. Six different pesticides were found in a single wine sample.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association has played the analysis down, calling it “sensationalist”. WSTA pointed to the fact that only one of the samples tested had pesticide residues above the permitted amount.

But PAN said the findings “call into question the reliability of the UK’s regulatory system”, which carries out safety assessments solely for individual chemicals. 

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has also previously said that a review of the current UK regulatory system that controls pesticide use may be needed following emerging evidence around the cocktail effect.

It is arguably impossible to create a testing system that is sufficiently sophisticated to be able to assess the full spectrum of health and environmental impacts resulting from long-term exposure to hundreds of different pesticides. The only way to minimise the risk to health and environment is to hugely decrease overall pesticide use, argue campaigners.

Responding to the PAN UK findings last month, a Defra spokesperson told Ends Report:  “In Great Britain we set strict limits on the pesticides residue levels that are allowed to remain in both food for consumers and feed for animals. These limits are set to protect public health and are set below the level considered to be safe for people to eat. The limits apply to both food produced in the UK and those imported from other countries.”

McKinsey, a consultancy, has previously warned companies that the net is closing in on chemicals used in packaging, and urged them to take a more “proactive approach”.