FDA considers ban on BPA in infant formula containers in response to lawmaker’s stratagem

An unusual tactic embraced by one House lawmaker to keep bisphenol A out of food packaging met with limited success this month after federal regulators agreed to initiate a ban of the chemical in infant formula containers.

In March, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban the chemical’s use in the formula containers. In two other petitions, Markey also asked the agency to stop the use of BPA in small reusable food containers as well as in packaging for canned foods and beverages — requests the agency rejected this month.

BPA has been used for more than four decades to harden plastics. It is also used in the protective linings of metal food and beverage cans.

For years, consumer advocates have pushed to eliminate the chemical from food packaging, citing potential health risks should BPA leach into food at dangerous levels. But Markey took a different tack. He used a provision that allows people to petition for changes to food additive rules if they can demonstrate that a particular use of the additive has been abandoned. His office polled the industry to determine BPA’s prevalence in packaging.

Using the “abandonment” clause enables the government to sidestep the debate over BPA’s safety and still eliminate its use. While Markey argued that major manufacturers no longer use the chemical, his goal was to make sure that they never can.

The FDA accepted the petition on infant formula, suggesting that it is seriously considering it. It plans to collect comment from the public before making a final decision. In a letter to Markey this month, the FDA said it would try to complete a scientific review of his request within 90 days.

“New parents should be worried about bibs and bottles, not BPA when feeding their babies,” Markey said in a statement Tuesday.

But the FDA said the evidence presented on canned foods and beverages as well as small reusable containers failed to demonstrate that a significant percentage of the industry has abandoned BPA in those packages. “You did not provide a rationale [on] how these manufacturers were identified and whether they represent a complete survey of all manufacturers,” the agency said.

The government has long maintained that BPA is safe in low doses. But a growing body of research suggests that exposure to this chemical could contribute to cancer, sexual dysfunction, behavioral problems in children and heart disease. The government started studying the issue more closely two years ago as new research emerged about the subtle effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, has said that several regulatory bodies worldwide have determined that BPA is safe. But consumer preferences forced manufacturers to abandon its use in several products, including baby bottles and sippy cups.

Even so, many health advocates have been pressing the government to adopt a formal ban. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the FDA after the agency failed to respond to its 2008 request to bar the chemical from use in food and drink containers.

In March, after a federal judge demanded that the FDA respond, the agency said it would allow BPA to remain in those types of packages.

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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