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Consumer Reports finds dangerous PFAS chemicals widespread in fast food packaging tested

Burger King and Chick-Fil-A commit to reducing PFAS in packaging after being told of CR’s test results 

YONKERS, NY – A new investigation by Consumer Reports found dangerous chemicals in most of the food wrappers and packaging from chain restaurants and grocery stores that were tested. CR tested each product for total organic fluorine, which is considered the simplest way to assess a substance’s total per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) content. The test results are concerning since exposure to PFAS has been linked to a growing list of health problems, including immune system suppression, lower birth weight, and increased risk for some cancers.

CR’s report was released as Restaurant Brands International (RBI), which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes, announced plans to phase out PFAS chemicals in its food packaging worldwide by 2025.  Chick-Fil-A announced a similar commitment late yesterday on Twitter to phase out PFAS in packaging by the end of this summer.  The restaurant chains made the public commitments after learning of CR’s investigation. Public health advocates have been calling on RBI to make that pledge since 2019.

PFAS are used in hundreds of products to make them resistant to heat, water, oil, and corrosion and are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to breaking down naturally in the environment, and can remain in people’s bodies for years. PFAS from grease-resistant food wrappers can seep into the food we eat and contaminate soil and water when packaging is tossed in the landfill.

“CR’s tests show that some of the most popular restaurant chains and grocery stores in the U.S. wrap their food in packaging containing toxic forever chemicals,” said Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumer Reports.  “Fortunately, some retailers have demonstrated that PFAS levels in food packaging can be kept very low and that companies can phase out these harmful chemicals.”

“We’re pleased that Burger King and Chick-Fil-A plan to phase out the use of toxic PFAS chemicals in the packaging they use for their menu items,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports.   “Your food shouldn’t come with a side order of forever chemicals when you pick up takeout at your favorite restaurant.   We hope today’s announcement will prompt other fast food chains to make a commitment to protect public health and end the use of dangerous PFAS chemicals in their food packaging.”

Consumer Reports launched a petition today calling on Arby’s, and Nathan’s to stop using PFAS in their food wrappers.  The two restaurant chains have not made a public commitment to end their use of food wrappers made with PFAS and had products with some of the highest levels of total organic fluorine in CR’s tests.

CR tested multiple samples of 118 food packaging products from major restaurant and grocery chains, including paper bags for French fries and wrappers for hamburgers, to molded fiber bowls for salads and paper plates.

As of next year, the state of California will restrict packaging to less than 100 parts per million (ppm) total organic fluorine, while Denmark has set levels at 20 parts per million (ppm) to protect public health. CR’s experts support the 20 ppm limit and believe that manufacturers should always strive for low levels, which CR’s tests show are feasible.

Consumer Reports found measurable levels of total organic fluorine in more than half of the food packages tested, including wrappers from fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, and others that promote healthier fare, like Trader Joe’s and Cava.  CR found that:

  • Almost a third – 37 food packaging products – had total organic fluorine levels above 20 ppm, and 22 were above 100 ppm.
  • Nathan’s Famous had the products with the two highest average organic fluorine levels – 876 ppm and 618 ppm for paper bags used for sides. Other food wrappers with particularly high levels included a paper bag for French toast sticks or cookies at Burger King with 345.7 ppm, a paper bag for cookies at Arby’s with 457.5 ppm, and a wrapper for a sandwich wrap at Chick fil-A with 553.5 ppm.
  • CR tested 13 food packaging products from retailers that claimed at the time of testing to be phasing out PFAS and found seven of these products had organic fluorine levels above 20 ppm. They ranged from a Whole Foods paperboard soup container with 21 ppm organic fluorine to a paper bag for pita chips from Cava with 260 ppm
  • CR’s tests found some harmful PFAS chemicals in food packaging despite the fact that manufacturers say they have been phased out and are no longer produced. One of them, PFOA, was the most frequently detected specific compound.  The other, PFOS, was the fifth most common.

Consumer Reports supports the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act in Congress and similar legislation in states to ban PFAS in food packaging.  In addition to California, similar bans have been passed in Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington and are being considered in Hawaii, Maryland and Rhode Island.

“PFAS can be found everywhere in so many different products that we come into contact with every day,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports. “Consumers shouldn’t have to worry about these dangerous chemicals when they pick up takeout food at their local restaurant. It’s time for Congress to protect public health and pass the bipartisan Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act.”

Avoiding PFAS in food packaging is challenging, but there are some steps people can take to limit their exposure:

  • Favor retailers that have pledged to reduce PFAS. While CR’s test show their levels aren’t zero, PFAS levels at these retailers tend to be lower
  • Don’t assume products with environmentally friendly claims are PFAS-free. All products CR tested with such claims had at least some detectable organic fluorine and some had levels above 100 ppm
  • Transfer fast food out of its packaging when you can. The longer food stays in its packaging, the more likely PFAS will migrate into your food
  • Don’t reheat food in its original packaging. That could make it easier for PFAS to get into your food
  • Test your water for PFAS. Consider using a water filter if PFAS levels are high
  • Limit exposure from other sources. Try to limit your use of other products known to contain PFAS, from water-repellent clothing to stain-resistant carpeting

Consumer Reports food packaging testing was made possible by the Forsythia Foundation, a foundation focused on promoting public health and reducing chemical exposure.



Michael McCauley: michael.mccauley@consumer.org, 415-902-9537