Wendy's Promises to Ditch Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Packaging by End of Year

These 'forever chemicals' impart grease resistance, but also resist degradation.

Wendy's Union Square
Wendy's near Union Square, New York City, in August 2020.

Getty Images / Alexi Rosenfeld

Fast-food chain Wendy's has announced it will get rid of toxic PFAS chemicals in its packaging by the end of this year. As stated in its annual report, "We anticipate full elimination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly called PFAS, from consumer-facing packaging in the US and Canada by the end of 2021."

The announcement was met with happiness and relief from several organizations that have been advocating for Wendy's and other major fast-food restaurants to ditch packaging that contains PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals" for their inability to break down in the natural environment once discarded.

"Wendy’s announcement with its swift timeline is welcome progress as we work to end uses of ‘forever’ chemicals that contaminate drinking water and threaten the health of communities," said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, in a press release.

Mike Schade, campaign director for Mind the Store, stated: "Wendy’s is taking meaningful action at a pace we’re thrilled to see. This announcement proves that it is feasible for large companies to phase out PFAS in food packaging by the end of this year." 

PFAS are typically used to make food packaging, clothing, furniture, sporting gear, and other items resistant to stains, grease, and water. And while they do the job well, they come at a cost to human health. The chemicals do not break down and can make their way back to people through the soil, water, and air. They've been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, hormone disruption, liver and kidney toxicity, and damage to immune and reproductive systems.

Toxic-Free Future reported that "nearly every U.S. resident has PFAS in his or her body, with biomonitoring studies finding PFAS in blood, breast milk, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, placenta, and other tissues." PFAS have been detected in drinking water all across the United States, in both fresh and saltwater.

When it comes to fast food packaging specifically, PFAS are added to stop hot grease from dripping through the paper. But these hot, usually fatty foods absorb the chemicals, and when they're eaten, so are the chemicals. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cited a 2008 FDA study that found "fluorochemical paper additives do migrate to food during actual package use," and the presence of oil and grease "can significantly enhance migration of a fluorochemical from paper."

Despite knowing about these harmful effects, the FDA has not taken definitive action against PFAS to protect American consumers. EWG's senior vice-president for government affairs, Scott Faber, told Treehugger:

"It’s good news that Wendy’s is driving toxic chemicals out of its food packaging, but consumers should not have to worry if their next burger is wrapped in packaging that will give them cancer. This announcement is further evidence of the FDA’s complete failure to protect us from chemicals in food and food packaging. Sadly, PFAS is not just in our food, but also in our cosmetics and other products people use every day. It’s time for the FDA to act.”

A recent national study led by Toxic-Free Future analyzed packaging from six fast-food chains, including Wendy's, Burger King, and McDonald's. The study concluded: "Testing found that all six food chains sampled had one or more food packaging items that likely contained toxic PFAS, including in a paper cookie bag from Wendy’s." A press release says that, of the six chains tested, Wendy's is the fifth since March 2020 to pledge to ban PFAS.

Burger King has been conspicuously silent and this lack of action has led to a petition asking the company to ban PFAS. In Schade's words, "Our testing found that these chemicals are likely being used in packaging at Burger King — including the wrapper for the Whopper. With more than 2 million Whoppers sold per day, this impacts millions of people each week." 

The meat-based fast food industry leaves much to be desired, but it's still good to see major brands taking action on a small yet significant detail like PFAS in packaging that can have a positive effect on customers' health.

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