Alternatives to BPA containers not easy for U.S. foodmakers to find
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Major U.S. foodmakers are quietly investigating how to rid their containers of Bisphenol A, a chemical under scrutiny by federal regulators concerned about links to a range of health problems, including reproductive disorders and cancer.
But they are discovering how complicated it is to remove the chemical, which is in the epoxy linings of nearly every metal can on supermarket shelves and leaches into foods such as soup, liquid baby formula and soda. It is a goal that is taking years to reach, costing millions and proving surprisingly elusive.
Randy Hartnell, whose company, Vital Choice, sells products aimed at health-conscious consumers, switched last year to can linings made without BPA. It was a costly move that he figured would resonate in the niche market that buys his canned wild salmon and low-mercury tuna.
But a recent Consumers Union test detected small amounts of BPA in Vital Choice tuna, raising questions about whether it is possible to clean the food supply of the ubiquitous chemical. The consumer group also found trace amounts of BPA in baked beans made by Eden Foods, the only other U.S. company that says it has switched to BPA-free cans.
"What we're hearing is, the stuff is just omnipresent," said Hartnell, whose Washington state company has spent as much as $10,000 on lab tests trying to pinpoint the source of BPA in its canned tuna. "Is it in the cutting board? The gloves that people wear who are working on the fish? Is it in the tuna itself? We don't know. We're trying to figure it out."
The food industry's efforts began even before the FDA announced last month that it had reversed its position and is concerned about the safety of BPA, which is used in thousands of consumer goods, including compact discs, dental sealants and credit card and ATM receipts. Government studies estimate that the chemical has been found in the urine of more than 90 percent of the population.
Foodmakers started looking for alternatives in 2008, after public pressure spurred manufacturers of plastic baby bottles to voluntarily rid their products of BPA. Several municipalities, Minnesota and Canada banned BPA from baby bottles. And Congress is considering a bill filed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would ban BPA from baby bottles, sports water bottles, reusable food containers, infant formula liners and food can liners.
But foodmakers say they aren't waiting for legislation or regulation.
"It doesn't matter what FDA says. If consumers decide they don't want BPA, you don't want it to be in a can that consumers don't want to buy," said one source at a major U.S. food company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Major food companies declined to talk publicly about their efforts to find a replacement for BPA linings. "We don't have a safe, effective alternative, and that's an unhappy place to be," the source said. "No one wants to talk about that."
Heinz, for instance, says it has switched to BPA-free cans for some products but will not identify them or say what substitute it is using. General Mills, which owns the Progresso and Muir Glen lines of canned products, said it is testing BPA-free cans but would not elaborate. "We are optimistic that safe and viable alternatives will be identified in time," said Thomas Forsythe, a company spokesman.
The Environmental Protection Agency has declared the daily safe BPA exposure limit at 50 mg per kilogram of body weight, a level set in the 1980s. A growing body of peer-reviewed research in the past decade has suggested that very low levels -- below the federal threshold -- might be responsible for health problems. BPA is a synthetic version of estrogen, and scientists disagree about whether it causes lasting effects by triggering subtle cellular changes.
John M. Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, which represents the canned food and beverage industry, said BPA has been "used safely in metal food packaging for decades. They have been deemed safe by regulatory agencies around the world." He also said there hasn't been a case of food-borne illness resulting from a failure of metal packaging since the industry began using BPA in its linings more than 30 years ago.