Cancer-Causing Chemicals Found in QSR Food Packaging

Containers and wrappers from McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Sweetgreen and Panera Bread, among others, were found to have PFAS.

March 29, 2022

McDonald's Food Packaging

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—A Consumer Reports report found that many popular fast-food and QSR food packages contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” and have been linked to immune system suppression, lower birth weight and increased risk for some cancers.

Consumer Reports tested over 100 food packaging products from restaurant and grocery chains and found PFAs in many types of packaging, from paper bags for French fries and wrappers for hamburgers to molded fiber salad bowls and single-use paper plates.

PFAS was present in some sort of packaging from each restaurant it studied, including McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Chipotle, Kroger and Sweetgreen, among others. Consumer Reports found PFAS in packaging from restaurants that claim to be moving away from using PFAS, though the amount of the chemicals were lower than other retailers.

(Here are the full results of restaurant packaging tested.)

“We know from our testing that it is feasible for retailers to use packaging with very low PFAS levels,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “So the good news is there are steps that companies can take now to reduce their use of these dangerous chemicals.”

Packaging made with PFAS can look like cardboard or paper, but food does not leak through. Additionally, when the packages are thrown away, they end up in landfills, which can lead to PFAS contaminating water and soil or spread through the air, if the packaging is incinerated.

“We know that these substances migrate into food you eat,” Justin Boucher, an environmental engineer at the Food Packaging Forum, told Consumer Reports. “It’s clear, direct exposure.” That’s especially likely when food is fatty, salty or acidic, according to a 2021 review in the journal Foods.

McDonald’s has said it plans to phase out the use of PFAS by 2025, and Burger King and Chick-fil-A have each committed to reducing PFAS in their packaging after being made aware of the Consumer Reports PFAS report.

Scientists and regulators are still debating what level of organic fluorine indicates intentional use. (Testing products for their total organic fluorine content is considered the simplest way to assess a material’s total PFAS content.) California has banned intentionally added PFAS. Starting in January 2023, paper food packaging must have less than 100 parts per million (ppm) organic fluorine. Denmark has settled on 20 ppm as that threshold, and Consumer Reports’ experts support the 20-ppm limit.