PFAS in Food Packaging Scandal in UK

'Significant levels' in samples from major supermarkets, food outlets

A Scottish-based NGO said it found “significant levels” of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in 90% of the food packaging samples bought from major UK supermarkets, coffee chains and takeaway restaurants.

The highest concentrations detected were 300 times the new legislative limit for PFASs in Denmark for paper and cardboard packaging, which will come into force in July, Fidra says in its report Forever chemicals in the food aisle published this week.

The substances were in the packaging material used by eight out of nine major UK supermarkets, Fidra said, after testing 20 samples, such as biscuit and bakery bags, takeaway boxes and greaseproof paper for ‘Total Organic Fluorine’ (TOF) – a widely accepted proxy for total PFAS content.

PFASs are added to create a grease and water repellent effect on paper and cardboard packaging. They do not easily break down in the environment and some accumulate in humans. Many are suspected carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, and can affect the immune system.

They are not yet banned in the UK, although many supermarkets are stopping use as a water-repellent in their clothing ranges. The European Commission is currently preparing to evaluate its decades-old food contact material (FCM) legislation with the aim of drafting new legislation.

Fidra tested the following samples from UK supermarkets:

  • bakery bag: Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s;
  • biscuit bag: Asda, Co-op, Morrisons, Tesco;
  • greaseproof paper: Morrisons, Waitrose; and
  • popcorn bag: Aldi, Lidl.

It also tested takeaway bags from:

  • Caffe Nero;
  • Costa;
  • Greggs; and
  • Pret a Manger.

Of the remaining samples, one was a pizza box from Dominos and four were takeaway boxes from independent food outlets – a café, a chip shop, a pizzeria and workplace cafeteria.

Fidra has since begun a petition, urging supermarkets to remove PFASs from their food packaging. It is also campaigning for UK regulators to follow the Danish ban.


Chemical Watch contacted all of the 15 named supermarkets and outlets. Five of them referred to a statement from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents many of the companies implicated in the report.

The BRC’s food policy adviser Elizabeth Andoh-Kesson said: “All our members’ packaging fulfils or surpasses the legal health and regulatory standards; retailers work closely with suppliers to ensure the safety of products.

“The legal limits for PFAS are based on robust scientific evidence and they are periodically reviewed. We are monitoring developments in this area but any changes to the use of substances must maintain product safety, integrity and sustainability.”

The only other response was from Tesco, which said it has already removed all PFOS and PFOA – long-chain PFASs – from its food product packaging and is “working towards solutions that remove PFAS”.

The Fidra report quotes “a leading UK packaging supplier” as saying that it has developed PFAS-free solutions to replace its current moulded fibre products, which it says it will phase out from the second quarter of this year. Tests revealed the highest PFAS levels in takeaway boxes made from this material.

“We are working to be entirely PFAS-free by the end of 2021, or sooner if possible. We invite all other industry players to do the same as soon as practicable,” the supplier said.

Widespread use

The report claims that the use of PFAS in UK food packaging is “widespread” across retailers and product types.

All products, except greaseproof baking papers, were found to contain the substances, it said. And 90% had levels considered “above the level expected from background contamination”.

Waitrose was the only supermarket where no PFAS sample was identified, although only a greaseproof paper was analysed.

“With mounting evidence on their harmful effects, continuing to use and release these forever chemicals into our environment is a risk we simply cannot take,” said the report’s author, Dr Kerry Dinsmore.

The NGO says consumers should avoid unnecessary use of disposable food packaging. Other recommendations include:

  • lower compostability standards for PFAS content to no more than background contamination; and
  • stringent, group-based chemical legislation preventing their use in food packaging.



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Use of PFASs ‘widespread’ in UK food packaging, report finds



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