PFAS breakdown process sheds light on “forever chemical” use in food industry

9 Sep 2022

PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are once again in the spotlight after new research details a method for decomposing these “forever chemicals” that have been detected in certain foods.

The method, which uses an emerging low temperature technique, has been hailed as a breakthrough in addressing the disposal of PFAS, widely used in food packaging products owing to their effective resistance to grease, oil, water and heat.

PFAS breakdown process sheds light on “forever chemical” use in food industry
© AdobeStock/Tada Images

However, mounting evidence points to a link to negative health effects such as thyroid disease, liver damage, high cholesterol, reduced immune responses, low birth weights, and several cancers.

PFAS have been found in a number of processed foods such as fish sticks, canned tuna and protein powder and occur at elevated levels in fish and shellfish caught from PFAS-contaminated waters.

The term refers to a group of around 12,000 chemicals that include the subclass, perfluorocarboxylic acids as well as compounds commonly produced by industry or found in the environment.

These include Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), that are highly toxic at low levels and have been used in products like waxes and food packaging.

PFAS: The ‘forever chemicals’ in our food & packaging

The concern stems from the difficulty in breaking down these chemicals. Because PFAS do not degrade, they steadily cycle through and accumulate in the environment. Research has estimated the chemical to be in the blood of 98% of US citizens.

Mounting evidence of PFAS role in human health serves as a warning to the food industry to address the issue sooner rather than later according to Stephanie Mattucci, associate director of global food science at Mintel.

Marketing intelligence gathered by the consumer trend analysts predict that PFAS are set to follow the path paved by Bisphenol-A (BPA) and are quickly becoming the next 'no-no' ingredient.

Mintel: Prepare for this to be the next ‘free-from’ claim

“Brands need to be prepared as PFAS-free becomes the next free-from claim,” Mattucci explains. “Bans are emerging across different states in the US, and foodservice brands are taking action too.

“Retail also will need to get ahead of this issue in order to not lose consumers' trust,” she continues.

Mattucci also points out that products with natural or clean label positioning are the first brands that will need to take action.

“Clean label has always been rooted in safety and is now expanding its reach to include processing and packaging, as well as ethical and environmental concerns,” she says.

Industry progress and government legislation

Led by evidence of water contamination, possible health impacts, government legislation, and pressure from NGOs and consumers, a growing band of retailers are agreeing policies to eliminate and ban PFAS from food packaging and/or products.

They include McDonald’s, which announced in January 2021 that it would remove added PFAS from “guest packaging materials globally by 2025.”

“Our continual product stewardship process includes evaluation and robust testing for chemicals used in our packaging,” the multinational fast-food chain stated. “This helps ensure that we serve food in packaging that is safe and functional.

“By the end of 2020, less than 7.5% of our guest packaging items still contained added fluorinated compounds. For these items, we continue our work to find and apply alternative coating materials that offer the right grease-resistant barriers.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks committed in March 2022 to eliminating PFAS from all packaging in the US and will eliminate PFAS globally in 2023.

In 2020, Amazon published a restricted substance list for certain private-label food-contact materials that restricts PFAS, among other chemicals and classes of chemicals as well as plastics.

This applies to Amazon Kitchen-brand products sold in Amazon Go, Amazon Go Grocery, Amazon Fresh, and Fresh grocery delivery.

© AdobeStock/Chris Anton

© AdobeStock/Chris Anton

Regulatory restraint

The commitment of fast-food, grocery and retail chains in phasing out PFA appears at odds with current regulatory action despite mounting evidence linking PFAs to a number of health conditions.

In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that there was “no evidence that levels found in samples indicate the need to avoid particular foods.”

“The FDA’s testing for certain PFAS in such a wide range of foods available, including those commonly eaten by babies and young children, is among the first study of its kind,” said acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock.

“Although our studies to date, including these newly released results, do not suggest that there is any need to avoid particular foods because of concerns regarding PFAS contamination, the FDA will continue our work to better understand PFAS levels in the foods we eat to ensure the US food supply continues to be among the safest in the world.”

EFSA sets limits and Denmark bans PFAS

Europe appears to acknowledge health concerns with the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) publishing its opinion on risk to human health back in September 2020.

The Authority set a group tolerable weekly intake limit of 4.4 nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg) body weight for four common measured PFAS in humans.

These were PFOA, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

“This tolerable weekly intake (TWI) also protects against other potential adverse effects observed in humans,” EFSA concluded.

“Based on the estimated LB exposure, but also reported serum levels, the CONTAM Panel concluded that parts of the European population exceed this TWI, which is of concern.”

Since July 2020, Denmark has banned PFAS use citing that the health risk is too great to wait for the EU to make a regulatory move on this front.

“I do not want to accept the risk of harmful fluorinated substances migrating from the packaging and into our food,” said Mogens Jensen, Denmark's Food Minister. “These substances represent such a health problem that we can no longer wait for the EU.”

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