Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of human-made chemicals that are found in a wide range of products used by consumers and industry. There are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others. Many PFAS are resistant to grease, oil, water and heat. For this reason, beginning in the 1940’s, PFAS have been used for many different applications including in stain- and water-resistant fabrics and carpeting, cleaning products, paints, and fire-fighting foams, as well as in limited, authorized uses in cookware and food packaging and processing (referred to as food contact substances). Two types of PFAS that have been produced in the largest quantities in the U.S. and are among the most studied are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).
The widespread use of PFAS and their ability to remain intact in the environment means that over time PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of environmental contamination. Typically, contaminated ground water and soil is limited to a specific geographic area, for example, near an industrial facility where PFAS were produced or used to manufacture other products, or an oil refinery, airfield, or other location at which PFAS containing products were used for firefighting. Through environmental contamination PFAS can enter the food chain, for example, crops grown in contaminated soils or using water from a contaminated source. To a lesser extent, PFAS can also migrate, or transfer, into food from certain food contact materials such as, grease proofing agents in paper and paper board packaging. The use of PFAS in food contact substances must be authorized by the FDA – certain limited uses are authorized through our food contact notification program.
Accumulation of certain PFAS has also been shown to occur in humans and animals, as found through blood tests. While the science surrounding potential health effects of PFAS is developing, current evidence suggests that the bioaccumulation of certain PFAS may cause serious health conditions. Understanding and addressing this public health issue requires collaboration across local, state, and federal agencies. At the national level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Defense are just some of the federal agencies the FDA is working with to advance knowledge on environmental contamination and potential associated health risks.
The FDA is focused on generating, applying and evaluating the science that is needed to estimate PFAS exposure from food. To do this, we are:
- Assessing foods for PFAS from environmental contamination through sampling in foods from specific areas affected by environmental contamination and in foods more generally; and
- Reviewing the limited authorized uses of PFAS in food contact applications.
Measuring PFAS concentrations in food, estimating dietary exposure and determining the associated health effects is an emerging area of science. FDA scientists are at the forefront of developing new and more sensitive testing methods to measure low levels of PFAS in foods, and we are working with states to build capacity for local testing laboratories. The FDA’s continued research and additional analyses of foods will help inform FDA efforts to identify and prioritize activities to reduce PFAS in human and animal food. This research will also increase our ability to detect, evaluate, and respond more quickly to potential contamination issues involving food. To lead this effort, in 2019, the FDA formed an internal workgroup and is committed to engaging with consumers, industry, and other federal, state, and local government partners in this process.
More on FDA efforts to estimate PFAS exposure from foods can be found in the Statement from Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas on FDA’s scientific work to understand per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food, and findings from recent FDA surveys.
The FDA has taken several approaches to assessing foods for PFAS from environmental contamination, including:
- in foods from specific areas affected by environmental contamination; and
- in foods more generally.
It is important to note that PFAS contamination in areas where food is grown does not necessarily mean the food itself will contain detectable PFAS. This is because the amount of PFAS taken up by foods depends on many factors, including the specific type of PFAS and characteristics of the food. Limited FDA testing for certain PFAS chemicals has found that most foods have no or very low levels of PFAS.
When there is evidence of PFAS in food the FDA conducts a safety assessment using the best available current science to evaluate whether the levels present a possible human health concern. Throughout this process the FDA works closely with our federal partners as well as with state and local officials to assess each situation and take appropriate next steps.
The FDA safety assessment method used for chemical contaminants considers how much people eat of the specific food and the toxicity of the specific contaminant(s) to characterize the human health concern. When analyzing food that may contain PFAS because of environmental contamination, the FDA has used the Environmental Protection Agency’s reference doses (RfD) for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), of 0.02 µg/kg bw/day as an appropriate toxicity reference value. This focus on PFOA and PFOS is because they are the two types of PFAS that have been produced in the largest quantities in the U.S. and are among the most studied.
Testing of Foods Associated with Specific Geographic Areas Affected by Environmental PFAS Contamination:
- Dairy, 2018-2019: Samples were collected from two dairy farms (Farm A & Farm B) with PFAS contamination of groundwater. Milk samples from Farm B and cheese samples from Farm A had low levels of PFAS. Based on the best available current science, the FDA has no indication that these substances at the levels found in the limited sampling present a human health concern. Milk samples from Farm A had levels of PFAS that were determined to be a potential human health concern and all milk from that farm was discarded and did not enter into the food supply.
- Produce, 2018: 20 produce samples were analyzed from an area with PFAS environmental contamination, in addition to 1 sample purchased outside of the area as a control. An analysis showed that 19 samples had detectable levels of PFAS. This sample size is limited and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions. Based on the best available current science, the FDA has no indication that these substances at the levels found in the limited sampling present a human health concern.
- Cranberries, 2016: 42 cranberry samples analyzed from a bog containing water with PFAS contamination. No cranberry samples had detectable levels of PFAS.
- Produce, meat, dairy, and grain products, 2019: In 2019, 91 samples that had been collected in 2017 as part of the Total Diet Study were analyzed for PFAS. 14 samples had detectable levels of PFAS. This sample size is limited and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions. Based on the best available current science, the FDA has no indication that these substances at the levels found in the limited sampling present a human health concern.
- Bottled Water, 2016: 30 samples of domestic and imported carbonated and non-carbonated bottled water were collected at retail locations in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The samples included: purified, artesian, spring, mineral, and carbonated waters. No samples had detectable levels of PFOA and PFOS. This sample size is limited and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions.
- Seafood, 2013: 46 fish and shellfish samples from 13 species of fresh and saltwater fish from across the country. 11 samples had detectable levels of PFAS. This sample size is limited and cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions. Based on the best available current science, the FDA has no indication that these substances at the levels found in the limited sampling present a human health concern.
- Milk, 2012: 12 raw milk and 49 retail milks sampled from across the country. With the exception of a single raw milk sample obtained from a dairy farm that had applied PFAS containing biosolids to its fields, no samples had detectable levels of PFAS.
To ensure that food contact substances used in packaging, cookware, and food processing equipment are safe for their intended use, the FDA conducts a rigorous review of scientific data prior to their authorization. Prior to 2000, the FDA authorized the use of food contact substances through the food additive petition process, which resulted in a regulation establishing safe conditions of use in Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Since 2000, the FDA authorizes the use of food contact substances through the Food Contact Notification (FCN) program. The Inventory of Effective Food Contact Substance (FCS) Notifications is a publicly available database of all uses of food contact substances authorized through the FCN program.
Certain PFAS are currently authorized for use in specific applications related to their non-stick and grease, oil, and water-resistant properties. Whether these PFAS migrate to food depends on the molecular structure of the PFAS and the conditions of use. For example, the PFAS used in non-stick coatings on cookware and sealing gaskets for food processing equipment do not migrate to food. However, PFAS used to make oil- and water-resistant coatings on paper food packaging have the potential to migrate to food. The specific authorized uses for PFAS in food packaging take into consideration this potential for migration and these authorized uses are limited to ensure safe levels of exposure.
The FDA reviews updated scientific information on food contact substances as it becomes available. The agency can revoke food contact authorizations when scientific data demonstrate that the authorized uses of a food contact substance are no longer safe. In addition, the FDA can also work with industry to remove food contact substances from the market through voluntary agreements.
For example, in 2011, the FDA obtained voluntary agreements with the manufacturers of certain “long-chain” PFAS compounds authorized under food contact notifications to remove those substances from food contact applications. “Long-chain” and “short-chain” refer to the number of carbon atoms in the molecular structure of a subset of PFAS. In 2016, the FDA revoked the regulations that authorized the remaining uses of these long-chain PFAS in food packaging.
For more information about these FDA actions, please visit:
- Update on Perfluorinated Grease-proofing Agents
- Constituent Update: FDA Removes Approval for the Use of PFCs in Food Packaging Based on the Abandonment (11/21/2016)
- Constituent Update: FDA Revokes Food Additive Approval for the Use of Long-Chain Perfluorinated Compounds as Oil and Water Repellents for Paper Used in Food Packaging (12/31/2015)
Newer studies suggest that “short-chain” PFAS (i.e., carbon chain length is less than 8 atoms long), may also pose a risk to human health. To better understand the potential health effects of these PFAS the FDA is collaborating with the National Toxicology Program. This, along with emerging information from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will inform any future action on the authorizations for the short-chain PFAS in the manufacturing of components for use in food packaging.
Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and Your Health, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), The United States Environmental Protection Agency