New York and California are the first of more than a dozen states banning or considering bans on so-called forever chemicals – poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) – in food packaging because they do not break down, instead accumulating on the bodies of animals and humans, and are linked to cancers, immune system suppression and lower birth weights.
New York’s ban on the chemicals is effective December 31; California’s ban takes effect the next day.
Thousands of products contain the chemicals, including nonstick cookware, medical technologies, semiconductors, batteries, phones, automobiles and airplanes. They are used in plant-based fast-food packaging, what had seemed a virtuous alternative to Styrofoam.
The compounds are virtually unbreakable, created when carbon and fluorine are fused. Toss food packaging containing them in landfills, and they contaminate soil and groundwater; incinerate them and they contaminate the air.
Andrew Davis, chair of the Environmental Practice Group at Shipman & Goodwin LLP, and Alfredo Fernández, chair of the firm’s Manufacturing Industry Group, told The Food Institute in an emailed statement that people are just now becoming aware of the dangers even though concerns over potential health and environmental impacts have been around for at least 20 years.
“The legal and scientific focus areas have evolved from focusing on PFAS manufacturers to industrial PFAS users to non-food consumer goods (such as waterproof fabrics or non-stick cookware),” they said. “The increasing focus on the food and food packaging industry, where PFAS have served as an important ‘grease-proofing’ agent, is the next step in our collective understanding of the ubiquity of PFAS.”
As two of the most populous states in the country, New York and California will have an enormous impact, both within the U.S. and internationally, Davis and Fernández said.
“As the first two states to put their bans into effect, we expect the majority of the food sector will need to comply with their requirements,” they said. Nine other states have passed similar bans, with six other states considering action.
3M announced (December 20) it would stop producing PFAS and products containing them by the end of 2025, a $1.3 billion business annually.
“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.” Foods high in salt, fat or acid absorb the chemicals more easily.
Davis and Fernández said they don’t know of any food manufacturers that intentionally add PFAS to their products, but eliminating the chemicals “requires difficult conversations with suppliers and partners up and down the supply chain and may increase costs if problematic packaging materials need to be replaced.
“This is easier said than done,” they added, “as the food industry is currently saddled with rising costs from all directions.”