Denmark will become the first country to ban controversial poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from food packaging in 2020, the country’s food minister Mogens Jensen recently announced. PFAS refers to a family of highly-fluorinated chemicals, the most well-known of which have been shown to be toxic and highly persistent in the human body and environment.

‘I will not accept the risk of harmful fluorinated substances migrating from the packaging to our food. These substances represent such a health problem that we can no longer wait for the EU,’ Jensen stated.

There are nearly 5000 PFAS chemicals in use commercially, some of which are more widely used and better studied than others. Some of these substances, like perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have been linked to adverse health effects such as liver damage, reduced immune function and cancers, as well as birth defects and fertility issues.

The imminent Danish ban will apply to all organic fluorinated compounds in cardboard or paper food packaging. While recycled paper will still be able to be used for food contact materials, if there is any fluorine content in the material it will have to be separated from the food with a barrier to prevent it migrating.

Analysis from the Washington DC-based Environmental Working Group has found that as much as 40% of fast food wrappers and paper products at 27 fast food chains throughout the US tested positive for fluorinated chemicals.

In the US, the House of Representatives introduced legislation in May to ban PFAS chemicals from food containers and cookware, but the bill hasn’t advanced beyond the energy and commerce committee. If approved, the rule would empower the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to designate PFAS substances in food contact materials as unsafe, and it would give the agency until the start of 2022 to enforce this ban.

In June, the FDA announced that it had not detected PFAS chemicals in the ‘vast majority’ of foods tested. Based on the ‘best available current science’, the agency said there is no indication that these substances are a human health concern.

Meanwhile, the European Food Safety Agency announced in December that it will revise the tolerable dietary intakes for PFOS and PFOA.