FDA Bans Use of Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Food Packaging Amid Rising Evidence of Health Risks

Regulators indicate the industry was able to phase out the use of PFAS in food contact packaging, ahead of a scheduled timeline commitment made in 2020.

Federal regulators have announced an end to the use of “forever chemicals” in food packaging, which has been widely used in recent decades as a means to absorb grease, but may increase the risk of serious and potentially life-threatening health risks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release on February 28, announcing a ban on the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in U.S. food packaging. The agency indicates the food manufacturing industry voluntarily phased out the use of the chemicals, which were previously found in fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out containers, pet food bags and a variety of other products.

The agency indicates that, as of this point, PFAS food packaging is no longer being sold on the U.S. market.

PFAS Exposure Health Risks

PFAS include a group of over 9,000 man-made substances, which are widely used to resist grease, oil and water. However, they are known to persist in the environment and build up in the human body, and there is growing evidence linking exposure to a myriad of adverse health effects, including testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis and other side effects.

Most of the PFAS health concerns have stemmed from water contamination problems, caused by the heavy use of the chemicals in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), which have been widely used by the military and firefighters for decades to fight fuel-based fires. During training and response exercises, these PFAS chemicals have been dumped into the environment and local water supplies, particularly around military bases, airports and firefighter training locations, causing many communities to have dangerous levels of the chemicals in their drinking water.

3M Company, DuPont, Chemguard, Inc., Tyco Fire Products and other manufacturers of chemicals and fire safety products now face thousands of PFAS water contamination lawsuits brought by local water providers and individuals diagnosed with various types of cancer. The companies also face hundreds of firefighter cancer lawsuits over exposure to AFFF, and evidence uncovered during litigation has further heightened concerns about the long-term risks associated with use of the chemicals.

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PFAS Food Packaging Concerns

In addition to worries over PFAS in firefighting foam, there have also been increasing concerns that the chemicals are used in many forms of food packaging. Those chemicals can leach through the packaging into food, and into the bloodstream of consumers.

In March 2022, Consumer Reports published a report which found PFAS was still widely used in fast food packaging, including products sold by major chains like McDonalds, Burger King and Chic-fil-A, all of whom have committed to reducing PFAS in their products in the past. However, even franchises like Trader Joe’s and Cava, who claim to promote healthier eating, had PFAS in some packaging, the report indicated.

The chemicals were found in paper bags, hamburger wrappers, fiber salad bowls and paper plates, among other packaging. Consumer Reports found that those who had committed to removing PFAS and promoted healthier lifestyles had lower levels, but the chemicals were still present in their bodies.

In July 2023, the FDA announced it was launching a food safety review, which involved investigating safety issues linked to the use of not only PFAS, but also BPA, red dye no. 3, brominated vegetable oil, and titanium dioxide.

FDA PFAS Food Packaging Ban

According to the FDA, PFAS chemicals are used in food packaging as grease-proofing materials. In the past, the FDA has authorized some PFAS use in food packaging, cookware and food processing equipment. But the agency notes that exposure to some PFAS have been linked to serious health effects.

The ban is a voluntary one, negotiated between the agency and the food manufacturing industry.

“To protect public health, in 2020, following our post-market safety assessment, the FDA obtained commitments from manufacturers to cease sales for food contact use in the U.S. of grease-proofing substances that contain certain types of PFAS. Today’s announcement marks the fulfillment of these voluntary commitments,” according to a FDA constituent update issued on the same day. “In addition, the FDA has confirmed that other manufacturers have voluntarily stopped sales of other food contact substances (which contain different types of PFAS) intended for use as grease-proofing agents in the U.S.”

Originally, manufacturers said it would take them 18 months to phase out the use of PFAS in food packaging, the agency noted. However, the FDA found that most were already able to remove or replace the PFAS chemicals ahead of that deadline.

The agency indicates it is now developing a validated analytical method that will help the FDA monitor for PFAS use in future food packaging products.

February 2024 PFAS Lawsuit Update

The PFAS food packaging ban comes as consumers and municipalities seek restitution for PFAS damages and contamination in the U.S. court system.

Given common questions of fact and law presented in thousands of lawsuits against AFFF manufacturers over the cancer risks linked to PFAS in firefighting foam, coordinated pretrial proceedings have been established in the federal court system before U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel in the District of South Carolina, where the claims are currently centralized for discovery and a series of early bellwether trials.

Although the manufacturers have reached proposed settlement over damages sustained by local water suppliers, who have been left with the costs associated with cleaning up the toxic chemicals, there have been no settlements in PFAS injury lawsuits brought by individuals exposed to the chemicals through drinking water, or firefighters directly exposed through AFFF foam.

The claims involve individuals diagnosed with kidney cancer, testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis and other injuries. Food packaging lawsuits are not a part of that litigation.

Last year, Judge Gergel directed the lawyers involved in the litigation to select a group of 28 representative personal injury claims for an AFFF injury bellwether pool, involving plaintiffs who say they were exposed to chemicals that contaminated drinking water.

However, the first cases are unlikely to go before a jury for several years. In addition, the outcome of these claims will not have any binding impact on the other individual lawsuits, although they will be closely watched and may influence how much manufacturers may pay to settle lawsuits brought by other plaintiffs.

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