Last week, a collection of watchdog groups including Toxic-Free Future and Mind the Store published the results of a study on the packaging offered by five major grocery chains. Whole Foods, an organization that prides itself on healthful, sustainable offerings, ranked worst of the five.
While the Amazon-owned chain keeps a list of "unacceptable ingredients for food" containing everything from aspartame to vanillin (from artificial sources), both its food bars and bakeries have been serving customers a far more hazardous additive. More specifically, the high levels of flourine present in Whole Foods' take-home containers suggests that they were treated with per- and polyflouroalkyl.
Colloquially known as PFAS, the chemicals are typically used in consumer products to protect from grease and water damage. This repellent quality makes them an especially popular choice for food packaging like fast food wrappers or pizza boxes.
They are so prevalent, the report states, that "virtually all U.S. residents have PFAS in their bodies, and babies are born with PFAS in their umbilical cords." Unfortunately, experts suggest they're far from harmless. Laboratory research has linked the chemicals to a number of potentially fatal health concerns including cancer, thyroid hormone disruption, and decreased response to vaccines.
PFAS have also come under fire for their deleterious environmental impact. Since so many PFAS-rich packages are also both single-use and non-biodegradable, they sit in landfills and ultimately contaminate water, soil, and wildlife. In certain regions, including suburban Philadelphia, PFAS-contaminated drinking water was a hot button issue during this year's mid-term elections.
2018 even saw San Francisco become the first U.S. city to ban PFAS outright in all single-use food packaging. This amendment to the city's environmental code goes into effect on January 1, 2020.
In an ironic twist of fate, Whole Foods selected the packaging in question (the Bio-Terra II) as part of a sustainability initiative. Their response to the study reads, "Whole Food Market introduced compostable containers to reduce our environmental footprint, but given the concerns about the possible presence of PFAS, we have removed all prepared foods and bakery packaging highlighted in the report."
Now, the company is engaged with suppliers to identify bio-degradable packaging that will help it promote sustainability without potentially poisoning its shoppers.