A coalition of environmental, food safety, and consumer health advocacy groups petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday to ban per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from food contact uses, and to “take aggressive action to protect consumers from all PFCs [per- and poly-fluorinated compounds].”

The petition contends that the scientific evidence shows “widespread harm” to health from PFAS exposure, and that the substances’ “widespread use and their ability to remain intact in the environment means that over time PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of environmental contamination” and accumulation in humans and animals.

The cumulative effect of PFAS from all these sources on our health, including our risk of cancer, harm to our immune system and impaired development of our children, has resulted in a national outcry for comprehensive action; states have been compelled to take action because the federal government’s piecemeal approach has left residents at risk.” – June 3rd Petition to FDA

Meanwhile, numerous food service and other companies are moving to adopt policies that prohibit PFAS in food packaging, including McDonald’s Corp., Wendy’s Co., Whole Foods Market, Inc., Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.; Office Depot, LLC; and Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV, which owns Food Lion, the Giant Co., and Fresh Direct.

For decades, the FDA has authorized several broad classes of PFAS for use in food contact substances due to their non-stick and grease, oil, and water-resistant properties.  The authorization of the use of a food contact substance (FCS) requires that available data and information demonstrate that there is a “reasonable certainty of no harm” for that use.  To make this finding, the FDA conducts an extensive review of scientific data, including data on migration of the substance into food, expected consumer exposure to the substance, and potential health impact from this exposure.

Currently, according to the FDA, PFAS are authorized for the following general categories of food contact uses:

  • Non-stick cookware: PFAS may be used as a coating to make cookware non-stick.
  • Gaskets, O-Rings, and other parts used in food processing equipment: PFAS may be used as a resin in forming certain parts used in food processing equipment that require chemical and physical durability.
  • Processing aids: PFAS may be used as processing aids for manufacturing other food contact polymers to reduce build-up on manufacturing equipment.
  • Paper/paperboard food packaging: PFAS may be used as grease-proofing agents in fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers, and pet food bags to prevent oil and grease from foods from leaking through the packaging.

The petitioners contend that FDA’s historic actions have been “a significant contributor to the consumer’s exposure … but the extent of the food contamination from the substances the agency currently allows is largely unknown because the agency does not test for them.”  In 2012, FDA reached agreements to remove long-chain PFAS from food packaging, though the agency continued authorizing FCS made from short-chain PFAS.  In 2019, FDA reached agreements with manufacturers to phase out some food use short-chain PFAS by 2023.

The petitioners specifically request that FDA:

  • Revoke existing food contact authorizations that have been granted for PFAS;
  • Evaluate other FDA regulations to identify and remove other food contact approvals for PFAS;
  • Ban PFAS use in food packaging and food handling equipment; and
  • Require companies to demonstrate that all PFCs, including PFAS, “do not biopersist or [] cause cancer by non-genomic means in
    order for their continued use in food contact materials to remain authorized.”

The June 3rd petition was filed by the Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defend Our Health, Environmental Working Group, Green Science Policy Institute, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and the League of Conservation Voters.

The FDA has 180 days to respond.