The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates the use of chemicals as food ingredients as well as the use of substances that make contact with food through packaging, storage, or handling. This helps ensure these chemicals are used safely and that food items are ultimately safe for consumption.

In February of 2024, the FDA announced that the use of grease-proofing materials that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are no longer to be sold or used in US food packaging.

What are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are known as “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly over time. This diverse group of chemicals is widely used because it resists grease, oil, water, and heat. These properties help products resist stains, corrosion, weather damage, and more.

However, many of these chemicals are toxic and have been linked to serious health effects, such as elevated risks of cancers. Due to having one of the strongest chemical bonds, these chemicals are incredibly resistant to degradation. PFAS have infiltrated the water, air, soil, food, fish, and consumer products across the globe. The true challenge is determining how to decrease or eliminate PFA use in the global manufacturing industry and how to eliminate them from the environment.

The PFA Food Packaging Ban

The ban specifically applies to grease-proofing materials containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The U.S. ban is currently a voluntary commitment by manufacturers to not sell food contact substances containing certain PFAS used as grease-proofing agents. This includes food packaging such as fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers, pet food bags, and more.

This ban, albeit voluntary, marks the first formal step towards protecting US consumers from potentially harmful food-contact chemicals. This could provide the framework for other industries on how to reduce or eliminate PFA usage throughout their manufacturing, storage, packaging, and handling practices.

Other industries that may be forced to eliminate, reduce, or substitute the use of PFAs in the coming years include:

  • Food packaging and food processing
  • Non-stick cookware manufacturing
  • Water and stain-resistant clothing
  • Carpets, upholstery, and furniture manufacturers
  • Household cleaning products
  • Cosmetic product manufacturing such as makeup and dental floss
  • Chemical manufacturing plants

For manufacturing companies, failing to adopt and comply with PFA regulations could lead to decreased business, heavy fines, and lost profits—costs that could eventually outweigh the expense of investing in PFA alternatives.

Moreover, as consumers become more educated about the potential dangers of PFAS, they may start looking for "PFA-free" products as they make their purchasing decisions. This is why it’s a great time for manufacturers to start exploring alternative methods of production that do not involve PFAS.

PFA Challenges and Expectations for Manufacturers

Health, safety, and environmental organizations freely admit that not enough research has been conducted to determine the threat level PFAS present. Researchers continue to work diligently to identify sources and understand all the health implications posed by more than 3,000 known PFAS.

Eliminating PFA use completely poses a challenge to manufacturers and lawmakers alike. Consider the following:

  • Currently, there is no U.S. federal law that requires manufacturing companies to eliminate PFAS, or to warn consumers (via labeling) that an item was made with or contains PFAS.
  • With thousands of variations of PFAS available to manufacturers, testing for and verifying the presence of these different PFAS in products is a significant investment of time and money.
  • Consumer demand for high-performing products requires the testing and implementation of effective PFA alternatives. This would have a widespread impact across a broad range of supply chains and industries. This would also potentially expose the public to other chemicals that may have their own unique adverse health effects.

This will not only impact United States manufacturers, but numerous other countries already have PFA bans or strict regulations in place that can affect the global supply chain. In fact, the European Commission (EC) and European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposed a ban that all per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances be banned, including all fluoropolymers which are a large subset of PFAS. This ban could be enforced as early as 2026.

As the PFA debate heats up, now is the time to consider the use of alternative substances (non-PFA containing substances) in your manufactured goods and processes. While the final ruling on PFA usage may seem far away, the time, costs, and research needed to find safe replacements takes time. United States manufacturers must be prepared for upcoming, foreign bans and regulations on PFAS to secure their profitability in the global market.