I recently found myself in the grocery store dithering over one of my favorite pantry staples: Canned tomatoes. I knew the canned versions come with a sidecar of bisphenol A (BPA), a substance with some serious health risks. Lia touched on those concerns when she wrote about the challenges of finding BPA-free containers for Noemi’s school lunch. And in recent months, there has been some news on the BPA front.
Widespread use, widespread risk
BPA is an organic compound used to harden plastics for water bottles, baby bottles, the lining of canned goods and all manner of plastic goods. It leaches into water and food, and it has been used in food cans for more than 50 years. BPA is detectable in the urine of 93% of the population, according to some estimates.
The problem? BPA mimics estrogen in the body and is thought to disrupt hormone function. The President’s Cancer Panel’s recent Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk report notes that a broad range of studies have linked BPA to breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease and early puberty (which is why parents are particularly concerned about exposing their kids to the stuff). A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that adults with higher urinary levels of BPA also have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and liver problems. Some studies even suggest it interferes with cancer treatment. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has named BPA among the “dirty dozen” endocrine disruptors to avoid.
The latest news
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration re-evaluated BPA (after declaring it safe in 2008). The agency agreed there’s “reason for some concern” about BPA, but declared the research (most of which has been done on animals) too limited to call for an outright ban on BPA. The FDA and National Institutes of Health are funding $30 million in new research into BPA’s safety–or lack of it.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to add BPA to its Concern List of hazardous chemicals. While the EPA doesn’t have jurisdiction over BPA in food packaging, an EPA ruling would cover, for example, BPA in thermal cash register receipts that you get at the store. [UPDATE: The EPA has since declined to initiate regulatory action regarding BPA, though the agency will continue to monitor research on the effects of BPA on human health.]
While government agencies investigate BPA’s hazards, can manufacturers continue to stand by it. In April, the Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) issued this statement: “CMI continues strongly to support the use of BPA epoxy coatings and believes our coatings are essential to food safety … Human exposure to BPA from can coatings is minute and poses no health risk that has been recognized by any governmental authority.”
Well, perhaps no American government agency has said outright that BPA is unsafe. But last month, Environment Canada, the Canadian version of the EPA, declared BPA toxic and is considering regulatory action that could be announced by the end of this year.
Consumer demand trumps regulation
In the meantime concerned American shoppers and consumer advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group have prompted food manufacturers and retailers to get BPA out of our food supply. Last month, As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes corporate social responsibility, and Green Century Capital Management, an investment advisory firm that advocates environmentally responsible investing, released their Seeking Safer Packaging 2010 report, which grades companies on their efforts to remove BPA from food packaging.
Hain Celestial, ConAgra and Heinz receive top marks for developing and testing BPA alternatives and starting to remove BPA from can liners; they also have time lines for eliminating BPA use entirely. General Mills gets a B+ for transitioning BPA out of its Muir Glen canned tomato products, starting with this fall’s tomato pack.
Among retailers’ private-label canned goods evaluated in the report, Whole Foods got the top grade: D+, because although Whole Foods is transparent on its stance regarding BPA–it opposes the stuff, obviously–it’s not actively developing alternatives, according to the report. (The natural foods giant, though, does “strongly encourage” suppliers to transition to BPA-free packaging where possible.)
But using BPA-free cans isn’t new, says Sonya Ludner, senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group. She notes that Eden Organic has used BPA-free cans in the late 1990s for all its canned bean products. Eden simply asked its supplier–Ball Corp.–to use the enamel liners made from vegetable resins that it was using before the introduction of BPA. It’s a solution that works for nonacidic ingredients, but not for acidic items like tomatoes. Manufacturers also are using alternative forms of BPA-free packaging. For instance, you can buy POMI’s tomato products in aseptic boxes or Lucini’s tomatoes packed in glass jars.
As the report’ s authors note, eliminating BPA is a good business move in response to growing consumer concern. “Companies are actually moving faster than regulators in phasing out BPA,” says Emily Stone of Green Century Capital Management.
Amy Galland, As You Sow’s research director, notes that this year 32% of companies have time lines to phase out BPA from packaging, up from just 7% last year.
Ludner says consumer demand, spurred by advocacy efforts by groups like the EWG, is driving this change. “I see a ton of momentum behind this, and I’m thrilled to see some action.”