Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals as they’re more commonly known, are a hot topic across a wide range of industries. For years, they’ve been used in everything from industrial components to apparel, from dental floss to takeout boxes. And for good reason–they’re both hydrophobic and lipophobic (meaning that they repel water as well as fats and oils), they’re extremely adaptable across literally hundreds of use cases, and they’re incredibly durable, refusing to break down or biodegrade. Ever. Like, ever.
Which, it turns out, is actually a pretty big problem, especially when paired with the fact that they’ve also been shown to be extremely toxic, associated with a range of negative health outcomes in exposed humans and animals. With over 14,000 different chemical substances falling under the PFAS definition, these widely used chemicals are turning out to be a big concern for both industries and consumers alike. Prompting the FDA and many international organizations to create additional guidelines, as well as PFAS regulations.
PFAS in food and beverage packaging
For the food and beverage industry, the problems with PFAS are heavily involved with food packaging, particularly around paper and paperboard products (alongside plant fiber packaging products in general). Long used to stabilize paper packaging and make it resistant to moisture and fats, PFAS chemicals have been shown to be capable, under various circumstances, of migrating from packaging to the foods inside of it. As a result, informed consumers want nothing to do with the stuff, and regulators worldwide are becoming involved.
On September 14th, 2023, TraceGains was proud to host a hugely informative webinar entitled “PFAS Unveiled: Understanding Regulatory Dynamics in Food Packaging,” featuring Dr. Ioan Paraschiv, global leader with knoell, alongside Kari Barnes, leader of Regulatory Standards for TraceGains. Both Kari and Ioan are credentialed scientists as well as experts on the global regulatory landscape, and in the webinar they dig deep into the realities faced by food manufacturers and brands trying to unravel the PFAS problem. None of the discussion is to be missed, but some important highlights are worth pointing out.
Regulations are in flux around the world
It may be the understatement of the year to point out that a consistent set of global standards around PFAS has yet to emerge. In Europe, the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability has outlined an extensive set of actions around PFAS regulation, and current proposals would restrict, and possibly ban, the usage of PFAS within the EU, as well as the sale of products containing PFAS chemicals. However, these regulations are still in the process of being developed. While that creates an opportunity for European brands and manufacturers to become part of the public consultation process, it also creates a fluid situation surrounding the chemicals themselves, even though long-term bans seem highly likely.
In the US, the situation isn’t much clearer. There is no formal ban on PFAS at the federal level, with the FDA still allowing the use of some PFAS chemicals for a range of specific applications, one of which remains paper-based food packaging. States, however, have started to fill the gap, with a range of not-very-consistent bans and restrictions being gradually enacted across different state jurisdictions.
The result is a highly varied (and rapidly evolving) landscape of regulations, ranging from aggressive bans on all intentional use with sharp limits on unintentional levels of PFAS in packaging, to somewhat more lenient restrictions with a bit more grace in the case of an unintentional presence. Brands in the US (and international entities wishing to market to American consumers) face a patchwork of regulation, with uncertain prospects for a future, federal ban.
The chemistry of change is tough
The obvious answer, it would seem, would be for brands and manufacturers worldwide to simply phase out PFAS and get back to business, right? Not so fast, say the R&D teams. As noted above, PFAS chemicals have some remarkable properties that aren’t always easy to duplicate. Worse, some of the best alternatives to PFAS are actually worse than PFAS itself in terms of toxicity.
Serious research and experimentation are ongoing across a range of applications, but various industries (not just food and beverage) have their work cut out for them to fully replace PFAS. In reality, not every application is going to work the same way without PFAS chemicals involved, potentially driving long-term changes to a number of products, food packaging included.
F&B professionals weigh in with TraceGains
In response to the ongoing challenges surrounding PFAS, TraceGains established a Food Contact Working group in early 2023, made up of industry professionals with direct expertise in the packaging space. The Working Group exposed several findings, which Kari Barnes discusses in detail in the webinar. Of note:
- The fragmented US regulatory landscape is a “nightmare” for the industry, requiring organizations to make potentially serious investments against a backdrop of real uncertainty.
- Importantly, PFAS is only one of a wide range of problematic substances in food packaging and other food contact scenarios, from nanoparticles to BPAs. Brands and manufacturers find themselves needing to think about the holistic, big picture of restricted substances in their supply chains.
- The food and beverage industry also faces inconsistency in the type of evidence and records needed from (and being provided by) material and packaging suppliers. While larger suppliers often include PFAS compliance on certificates of analysis, a wide range of other (not always impressive) documentation is floating around, making life complicated for brands.
Where do we go from here?
In this webinar, Kari and Ioan break down the key challenges facing brands, manufacturers, and their suppliers, but they also offer some solid perspective on how to move forward. As so often, it starts with awareness–understanding which substances in your supply chain may contain PFAS, based on the appropriate definitions in the jurisdictions in which you market, and using the right practices and tools to ensure that you’re aware of exactly what’s getting into the products you offer. In particular, both Ioan and Kari lay out meaningful strategies for gathering critical information from suppliers, as well as for navigating the complex global regulatory environment.
If you missed the webinar, it’s not too late! Stream it on demand now and become part of the global conversation on creating a safer and more transparent packaging supply chain.