PFAS or 'Forever Chemicals' - the next liability issue?

Researchers in the US have raised concerns over so called ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS, poly and perfluoroalkyl substances.  Due to their structure and unique chemical properties, PFAS are widely used as they provide a non-stick barrier to fat and water. The compounds are widely used in takeaway food packaging, microwavable bags, kitchen utensils, and cookware.

Human exposure to PFAS from the environment and through dietary sources has been highlighted in media in recent years, particularly in the US.

PFAS are classified as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). They are also recognised as long range transboundary air pollutants. PFAS have been widely detected in the environment (due to their use as firefighting foams and escape from manufacture sites) and now in the food chain and in human blood. As PFAS bioaccumulate through the food chain it is generally foods of animal origin such as fish and meat that are found to contain the highest levels of these compounds. However, the soil that the crops are grown in, the water supplies used on the crops and potential nearby industries/production plants using PFAS products can influence PFAS contamination levels found in crops.

Belgium scientists have recently reviewed PFAS in straws, particularly in straws made from plant based materials such as paper.  PFAS were found to be present in almost all types of straws, except for those made of stainless steel. PFAS were more frequently detected in plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, according to researchers from the University of Antwerp, in results published on 25 August.

‘Many food contact materials (FCMs) and reusable plastics in the food industry contain poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of synthetic pollutants that are known to be potentially harmful for wildlife, humans, and the environment. PFAS may migrate from FCMs to food consumed by humans. As a replacement for plastics, often paper and other plant-based materials are used in commercial settings. This also applies to drinking straws, where plant-based and other presumably eco-friendly straws are increasingly used to reduce plastic pollution. In order to make these materials water-repellent, PFAS are added during manufacturing but can also already be present early in the supply chain due to the use of contaminated raw materials.’  Full article: Assessment of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in commercially available drinking straws using targeted and suspect screening approaches (

Single Use Plastic vs Plant Based

Plant-based straws have become popular alternatives to the single-use plastic products that have been banned in a number of countries in recent years.  The new Environmental Protection (Plastic Plates etc. and Polystyrene Containers etc.) (England) Regulations 2023 will come into force on 1 October 2023, which means that businesses must no longer supply, sell or offer certain single-use plastic items in England.

However, this new research may indicate there are other food safety and environmental concerns that may need to be taken into account in the promotion of reusable alternatives.

It is recommended that food businesses ensure appropriate due diligence and horizon scanning to seek to mitigate their liability wherever possible to emerging risks.

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