Whole Foods Market, Amazon.com Inc.’s grocer that has spurned artificial flavors and antibiotic-laden meat, says it’s now working to remove a cancer-linked chemical from some of its food packaging.
The company made the announcement last week, coinciding with a study that found it ranked worst among five U.S. grocery chains in a survey of packaging for takeout food and bakery items. The development highlights how chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are drawing greater attention from consumers. The substances are also the target of renewed scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency this year.
The policy change also shows how companies like Whole Foods, which has built its brand on selling natural and healthy products and maintains a list of unacceptable items, can still struggle to live up to its lofty ideals across its supply chain.
“Whole Foods Market introduced compostable containers to reduce our environmental footprint, but given new concerns about the possible presence of PFAS, we have removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging highlighted in the report,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We’re actively working with our suppliers to find and scale new compostable packaging options.”
Watchdog groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future surveyed 78 items from five grocers. They found high levels of fluorine in five of the 17 items tested at Whole Foods — four of which were take-out containers for its salad and hot food bar. These items have been removed from Whole Foods Market, the company said in an email.
The presence of fluorine is a sign that the items were likely treated with a type of PFAS, according to the study. The concerns around the chemicals are multiple: They may migrate to food held in the containers and can linger for a lengthy period in the human body. Some types have been shown to hamper the immune system or promote cancer. While some varieties have yet to be tested, those that have been examined show problems, scientists say. Because they never degrade, packaging send to landfills and compost can end up contaminating soil and water.
3M Co., a manufacturer of the chemicals, declined to immediately comment. The company has said in the past that the chemicals are safe at the levels usually found.
Other grocers, including Albertsons, Kroger and Ahold Delhaize NV, the owner of the Food Lion and Stop & Shop, also had fewer items that tested positive for the substance. These were usually deli or bakery papers. Trader Joe’s was the only company that had zero items.
PFAS are widely used in waterproof or stain-proof fabrics, electronics, Teflon manufacturing, and 3M’s Scotchgard. The substances help prevent grease from soaking through paper in food contact materials.
Many kinds of PFAS are widely found in U.S. drinking water, and lawsuits from states, water districts and people who claim personal injury or property damage allege pollution through industrial sites or their use in fire-fighting foams.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Mike Schade, who works with Safer Chemicals, referring to the Whole Foods announcement.
The study is intended to push grocery stores to move to safer alternatives. A similar study in 2017 found that fast-food chains also used the chemicals.