Advocacy groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, and Toxic-Free Future recently released a study that revealed Whole Foods as the worst of five grocery chains in using packaging that contains polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. This packaging was used for bakery items and takeout food.
The study tested 17 items at Whole Foods and found high levels of fluorine in five of the items. The presence of fluorine means that they were likely treated with some type of PFAS, which is typically used to prevent packaging from leaking. The Amazon-owned grocery chain reported that they removed the packaging from all stores on Dec. 11, 2018.
Whole Foods has long been praised for its high standards of healthy food and consumer-friendly hot-food bar and salad bar. Yet, four of the five items with high fluorine levels were containers for those food bars. According to an emailed statement from the grocery chain to Bloomberg, they had introduced compostable containers in an attempt to reduce their environmental footprint.
The newly discovered possibility of present PFAS in those compostable containers is leading the company to seek new packaging. While recycled boxes and bags are a reliable option to ship goods via eco-friendly transportation, Whole Foods is working with suppliers to specifically find biodegradable packaging.
There are multiple concerns surrounding PFAS that spurned the advocacy groups to rate Whole Foods the worst among the studied chains. The first concern is that the chemicals seep into the food the containers hold and then linger for a long period in the human body. Some types of the chemical have been shown to promote cancer or interfere with the immune system, but those have been phased out from production.
Researchers have yet to test newer varieties of PFAS, but scientists say that those that they have examined show issues. The primary issue is that while the container itself may be compostable and biodegradable, the chemicals are not. When the containers go to landfills and start to compost, the PFAS can contaminate surrounding soil and water. This, of course, is highly dangerous as ground water accounts for over 95% of the nation’s available fresh water and is the source of drinking water for roughly 50% of the country’s residents.
The study found that other grocers, including Albertsons and Kroger, also tested positive for PFAS but with fewer items. The only company that has zero items containing the substance was Trader Joe’s.