US fast food chain Chipotle has responded to the publication of tests which claim to show its biodegradable bowls are treated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) by saying it only partners with suppliers who make “fluorochemical sciences and food safety a top priority”.
The company issued a statement after non-profit media outlet The New Food Economy released the results of a study it carried out into compostable bowls commonly used to serve food.
The NGO said it tested three samples of biodegradable bowls from Chipotle and fellow chains DIG and Sweetgreen and found that they contained levels of fluorine ranging from 1,477 parts per million (ppm) to 1,901ppm. This, the study says, can only be achieved through intentional PFAS treatment.
There is no suggestion that levels found breach current regulations, but campaign groups, academics, politicians and regulatory authorities have raised concerns with the potential for PFAS substances to persist in the environment. Some are calling for tougher measures on this entire class of chemicals.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does allow some uses of PFASs in food packaging applications with varying limits, including 2,000ppm for some. However, amid reports of widespread contamination in the environment, recent months have seen heightened concern in the US about the substances.
And the May release of findings from an FDA study on the substances’ presence in food has brought additional focus to food contact applications.
Single samples were also tested at smaller food chains, the NGO said. Levels for these samples were also within the recorded range.
Chipotle told Chemical Watch that suppliers of the company’s bowls operate under “strict guidelines” for PFASs, as set by the FDA.
And, it added, its suppliers – which it would not name – provide certification confirming that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet regulatory requirements.
DIG and Sweetgreen had not responded to a Chemical Watch request for comment on the results of the study by the time of publishing.
Increased scrutiny of the chemicals has seen North America’s major certifier of compostable products and packaging, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), set stricter limits.
The institute set a 31 March deadline to submit total fluorine tests on certified products from an approved lab. If they failed to comply with the 100ppm requirement by the deadline, their certificates will expire on 31 December, rather than the standard three-year licensing period.
BPI executive director Rhodes Yepsen told Chemical Watch the requirement is not just to meet 100ppm total fluorine, they also cannot have any intentionally added fluorinated chemicals. The organisation verifies these by checking safety data sheets for every ingredient.
“Some products will likely be losing certification at the end of 2019, as they do not meet these new rules,” he said.
If The New Food Economy tests are accurate, Chipotle’s suppliers would not be eligible, or could lose any current certification.
BPI certification is often required or specified by purchasers if they are sourcing products to be collected in a composting programme. This, said Mr Yepsen, is because they need an independent way of verifying that the compostable claim is legitimate.
The stricter limit is not a judgment on the FDA, he said. “We are looking for a reasonable way of assuring composters that BPI-certified products do not contain fluorinated chemicals.”
The idea behind 100ppm is that it is a “reasonable threshold for when fluorinated chemicals are not intentionally used,” he added.
The results of The New Food Economy study and the “negative focus on compostable products is misplaced”, Mr Yepsen said.
“There is nothing inherent connecting PFAS to compostable products, they just happened to be used in a handful of applications.”
The majority of compostable products, he added, have never used PFAS substances and instead achieve a water and grease barrier through the use of biopolymers like PLA, PBS, PHA, PBAT and compostable waxes.
“If the concern is more broadly about fluorinated chemicals persisting in the environment, then we should be looking at the biggest sources of exposure, such as manufacturing sites and firefighting foam, and how the FDA, EPA and others regulate the class of chemicals,” he said.
Chemical company Chemours recently asked the FDA to withdraw food packaging approvals for two of its PFASs because it has stopped manufacturing them.
Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the NGO Environmental Defense Fund, blogged that both the Chemours decision and the findings from The New Food Economy study “highlight the need for FDA to move quickly to complete its reassessment of the safety of its PFAS approvals”.
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Published on chemicalwatch.com