Trend Watch: BPA: A Threat - or Just Misunderstood?

March 11, 2009
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When it comes to stirring up controversy, few other substances can beat bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical building block, primarily used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, is an endocrine disruptor* that’s been linked to ills ranging from obesity to cancer.

When it comes to stirring up controversy, few other substances can beat bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical building block, primarily used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, is an endocrine disruptor* that’s been linked to ills ranging from obesity to cancer.

At retail, BPA shows up in polycarbonate baby bottles, (reusable) water bottles, “sippy” cups and CD and DVD cases, as well as in the epoxy linings of aluminum and steel cans. The problem? BPA can leach into the foods and beverages placed inside polycarbonate containers - and those already residing in cans - especially upon heating.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), industry groups and environmental advocates differ widely in their views related to the potential dangers any leached BPA presents.

In an August 2008 draft safety assessment, FDA stated that BPA does not pose a health hazard at the low levels migrating from containers to food, even to the youngest - and most vulnerable - consumers.

But FDA’s Subcommittee to the Science Board, which conducted a review of the agency’s draft report, raised some questions regarding the criteria FDA used to assess which research should be taken into consideration for regulatory purposes. On Oct. 31, 2008, the Science Board issued its own peer review of FDA’s draft assessment, identifying “several significant concerns with the assessment in its current form.” The Science Board made a number of recommendations to FDA for moving forward on the final assessment.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers headquartered in Washington, D.C., is calling for a federal ruling to remove BPA altogether from food contact surfaces.

“We know from animal studies that very low levels of exposure are associated with adverse health effects - everything from breast cancer to prostate cancer, behavioral effects, infertility and obesity,” says Anila Jacob, M.D., EWG’s senior scientist. “So we believe the signs are strong enough that you want to minimize exposure as much as possible.”

Jacob points to a laboratory analysis the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel performed on 10 products as further evidence of the BPA problem. The products were heated in a microwave or a conventional oven, after which BPA was found to be leaching from all of them.

“The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found caused neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals,” the newspaper reported in a November 2008 article. “The newspaper tests also revealed that BPA, commonly thought to be found only in hard, clear plastic and in the lining of metal food cans, is present in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers and plastic baby food packaging.”

Jacob says EWG is recommending that BPA be removed from food products because that's the primary source of exposure. In the meantime, she advises consumers to avoid microwaving in any plastic containers. And she says retailers can help minimize consumers’ risk of exposure by offering national brand and private label powdered formula instead of canned liquid versions - and by selling non-polycarbonate baby bottles and reusable water bottles made of metal instead of polycarbonate.

“We know that many manufacturers and retailers have started to take action on their own,” she adds. “Wal-mart and Toys ‘R ‘Us have issued statements saying that they’re going to start taking BPA-containing products like baby bottles off their shelves, and Nalgene said they’re going to stop using BPA in their [reusable water bottle] products.”

Last year, Canada went so far as to ban BPA in several products, including baby bottles. But in a column published in the October 2008 issue of Food & Beverage Packaging (a sister publication to PL Buyer), George Misko of the law firm Keller & Heckman noted that Canada’s “rush to judgment” was too rash. He called it “a precipitous announcement to ban a product based on a hurried risk assessment that substituted the precautionary principle for sound science.”

Steven Hentges, Ph.D., executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Chemistry Council’s Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group, is on a mission to clear up what he calls “widespread confusion” related to BPA. First, he stresses that the substance is found only in polycarbonate plastic - a hard, clear, shatter-resistant plastic used in baby bottles, some storage containers and a variety of non-food-related applications - and in epoxy resins such as those used to line cans. As for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s findings, his best guess is that some cross-contamination came into play.

“For something like a microwave meal tray where it’s going to be used once and tossed, polycarbonate might make a great plastic, but it’s just too expensive to be practical,” he contends. “And most food and beverage cans, whether steel or aluminum, have an epoxy resin coating in them - for a very important health reason. It protects the food from the can.”

Although the Japanese did develop an alternative coating recently, Hentges says it’s applicable only in select applications - and that 75 percent or more of the cans in Japan still rely on epoxy resin coatings.

What’s more important, Hentges says, is that consumers need not worry about the very low levels of BPA that are present in polycarbonate containers and canned foods and beverages - and retailers need not scramble to find alternative containers.

“The latest statement that FDA made, at the end of October, was that consumers should know that ‘based on all available evidence, the present consensus among regulatory agencies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan is that current levels of exposure to BPA through food packaging do not pose an immediate health risk to the general population, including infants and babies,’” Hentges says. “Whether you trust FDA or not, the key word is ‘consensus’ - because around the world, the science of BPA has been evaluated quite a few times.”

When it comes to retail private label programs and BPA, consumer education is key, Hentges stresses.

“Given the current confusion, I think it would be good to try to find a way to provide information to customers,” he says. “Reaching consumers, getting that sort of information to consumers, is not the easiest thing to do, but [retailers] have that direct relationship.”  PLB


*Defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “chemical substances, sometimes called environmental estrogens, both from natural sources and man-made, that if present in the body at the right concentration and at the right time, can adversely [affect] hormone balance or disrupt normal function in the organs that hormones regulate.”

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