The Right Chemistry

The next BPA? Why businesses must get ahead of hormone-disrupting chemicals

Grocery shelf shore
Shutterstock VOLYK IEVGENII
Fluorinated and dangerous chemicals are common in greaseproof packaging.

American consumers are growing increasingly concerned about food safety and chemical hazards. Over the past 10 years, the market has shifted away from products containing bisphenol A (BPA) — previously found in baby bottles, sippy cups and food packaging — following widespread consumer demand for safer products. But BPA is not the only chemical of concern in the food supply that should be on the radar of sustainability professionals.

Meet the new BPA: phthalates and PFAS. 

Over the past year, a tidal wave of media and public attention has been paid to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, and how they have contaminated the drinking water of millions of Americans coast to coast. But most major grocery, big box and restaurant chains may not realize that PFAS and another class of toxic chemicals called phthalates are hiding in the food and food packaging they serve to their customers every day, posing a hidden business liability to retailers and brands. Phthalates and PFAS are used in food processing, packaging and preparation. In fact, they’re found in America’s favorite brands of food products, despite that they pose notable hidden financial, legal, regulatory and reputational liabilities to businesses.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lacks the mandate, budget and political will to modernize our broken chemical safety system to address these chemicals. That’s why the business community must lead once again, just like it did on BPA.

The opportunity to lead

Grocery stores have the market power and responsibility to meet rising consumer demand for safer food, especially in the absence of leadership by our federal government. We encourage these companies to develop proactive strategies to address the hidden hazards posed by phthalates and PFAS.

Over the last five years, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has led the Mind the Store campaign to assist and encourage major retailers in improving the chemical safety of the products and packaging they buy and sell. Last year, our second annual "Retailer Report Card" graded 30 companies on their safer chemical policies and practices, including major grocery chains such as Kroger, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. This fall, we plan to release an expanded report card, which will evaluate an even greater number of companies, including additional grocery stores.

Along with our partners at the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Toxic-Free Future,  last month, we sent letters to over 75 of the nation’s top grocery and restaurant chains, urging them to take action on phthalates and PFAS. Let’s briefly examine the case for action.

Phthalates in the food supply — a major source of exposure

Eating food is the major way that most people are exposed to these hormone-disrupting chemicals, which many studies link to harm to reproductive health and brain development.

Daily exposure to phthalates poses an unacceptable cumulative health risk to women of childbearing age and young children, according to federal and academic scientists. Phthalates are industrial chemicals widely used to soften plastic (especially vinyl or PVC) and rubber, and in adhesives, inks, sealants, coatings and fragrance. Research shows that phthalates migrate into foods from every point along the supply chain: at the farm level, in processing plants, from food packaging and during food preparation.

Last year, The New York Times broke the story that processed macaroni and cheese was laden with phthalates, which led to a wave of media coverage, posing reputational liabilities to Kraft and other manufacturers. A recent study found that dining out was associated with the highest phthalate exposure among Americans, suggesting that materials used in food preparation in restaurants are an additional source of these chemicals.

Here’s the good news: Safer alternatives to phthalates are widely available, effective and affordable. Surely if companies can get them out of vinyl flooring and toys, they can get them out of food contact materials.

PFAS, the highly fluorinated chemicals in food contact materials

PFAS includes some of the most long-lived chemicals known to science. They don’t readily break down in the environment, may build up in our bodies and are highly mobile, enabling them to contaminate drinking water.

These highly fluorinated chemicals were commercialized without adequate data or safety assurance. Yet research links PFAS exposure to reproductive and developmental toxicity, harm to the liver and kidney and hormone disruption. The use of PFAS poses a long-term hazard and will continue to release problematic persistent chemicals into the air and drinking water for decades and centuries to come.

PFAS are widely used to impart resistance to grease, stains and water in food serviceware and packaging, textiles and other materials. A 2017 study found that 33 percent of fast food packaging tested still contained PFAS, where they can make their way into our food. Like phthalates, safer alternatives are available.

Solutions are within reach

Corporate leaders and states are paving the way. For example, Nestlé has eliminated phthalates from its manufacturing plants and packaging. The European grocery chain Coop has demonstrated that PFAS chemicals can be removed from microwave popcorn.

This year, Washington state passed a new law (PDF) to phase out PFAS in food packaging made of paper and paperboard by 2022. Other states undoubtedly will follow, underscoring the importance for companies to get ahead of the regulatory curve now.

Policy recommendations for grocery and restaurant chains

Grocery, big box, restaurant and fast food chains can be part of the solution in protecting the health of their customers from phthalates and PFAS in our food supply. We recommend that companies take the following actions for all of the food-related products they sell.

PFAS:

  1. Adopt a policy to reduce and eliminate the use of PFAS in food packaging, food serviceware (such as plates, parchment paper and muffin cups) and in supply chains
  1. Work with suppliers to eliminate PFAS from food packaging, food serviceware and upstream supply chain sources 
  1. Agree to meet the new Washington state ban on PFAS use in food packaging in every state in the U.S. Effective safer alternatives rapidly are being commercialized.

Phthalates:

  1. Require suppliers to meet the 2011 European standard that bans the use of most phthalates in food contact materials made of plastics or rubber. This includes disposable gloves, conveyor belts, flexible tubing and hoses, milking equipment and seals and gaskets. American consumers should not suffer a lower standard of health protection than Europeans.
  1. Require suppliers to certify that phthalates are not added to printing inks, adhesives, coatings or seals used in any of food packaging. Nestlé and others have shown that safer alternatives are available for all these uses.
  1. Ensure that phthalates are not used in plastic or rubber materials located inside any facility that you own or franchise where food is exposed to the open air. Such items may include rubber or vinyl floor mats, boots and other footwear, waterproof clothing, water hoses, wall coverings and roller shades.

By taking these steps, companies can demonstrate they are proactively taking action to get out in front of these dangers.

Looking ahead

At a time when the federal government is asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting consumers from toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, it is more imperative than ever that major retailers and brands leverage their power and influence to drive harmful chemicals out of commerce and instead promote sustainable green chemistry solutions.

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