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Consumers to FDA: Be there or be square

Friday, September 26, 2008

2457082387_c40700d77b.jpg While the federal Food and Drug Administration dithers about whether to ban bisphenol A (BPA), a plastics chemical and synthetic estrogen, from U.S. food packaging, increasing numbers of Americans are voting with their pocketbooks. The winners: entrepreneurs who paid attention to the early scientific reports documenting possible health risks of trace amounts of BPA leached into food and beverages from epoxy can linings and polycarbonate plastic bottles. Eden Foods, Inc., a Clinton, MI., natural food company that adopted BPA-free cans in 1999, around the time the Japanese food processing industry voluntarily eliminated the chemical from its wares, reports a 40 percent jump in sales of its canned beans since 2006. Kleen Kanteen, a Chico, CA., company founded in 2003 to produce reusable stainless steel water bottles, did $2.5 million in sales in 2007. This year’s sales have spiked by a whopping 600 percent, and the company projects sales of $15 million or more by the end of the year. Since April, when Canada announced a ban on BPA in baby bottles, says Kleen Kanteen officer Jeff Cresswell, “It’s been pretty crazy.” Orders for Kleen Kanteen bottles, he says, “quadrupled in a matter of days.” The company has recently introduced new product lines, including a 12-ounce bottle that accepts a baby bottle top, sippy-cup lid and regular lid so it can stick with its owner from diapers to skinny jeans. BornFree of Boca Raton, FL., launched in 2006 to make BPA-free baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers and other baby products, is enjoying "tremendous growth," according to a company official who declined to cite sales numbers.

The Environmental Working Group and other health and consumer organizations are pressing the FDA to order BPA removed from can linings, baby and water bottles and other food packaging. The agency is ignoring those calls -- and consumers are ignoring the FDA. Major North American retailers like Walmart, Toys “R” Us, REI, Costco, Sears and Home Depot have been pulling BPA-based baby bottles, water bottles and other products from their shelves. Earlier this year, popular sports bottle makers Nalgene and Camelbak introduced bottles made of Eastman Tritan copolyester, which contains no BPA. Major baby bottle brands like Gerber, Evenflo and Playtex are also moving to non-BPA bottles, though more slowly. Top makers of canned baby formula, revealed by EWG to use BPA-laden can linings, have told Congress they are exploring alternatives. PBM, a maker of store brand formula, recently wrote the House Energy and Commerce committee, “[T]he possibility that bisphenol A may pose adverse health risks to the infants and children who are fed our formula was more than sufficient for us to begin the process of eliminating bisphenol A from our infant formula packaging." (In the meantime, to help parents through the transition, EWG has posted an online “guide to baby-safe bottles & formula.”) Small, agile companies with the ability to ramp up production of non-BPA products appear to be enjoying the steepest growth curves. Earlier this month, the Investor Environmental Health Network, which calls itself a “collaborative partnership” of environmental health-savvy investment managers responsible for portfolios totaling $41 million, issued a “Bisphenol A Market Analysis Report” that concluded that demand for BPA-free food contact products has “exploded” because “consumers are not waiting around for the regulatory process to kick in.”

“Companies monitoring emerging science and taking strategic steps in advance of slow government regulatory processes appear to clearly have the competitive edge as ‘first movers’ in the marketplace,” the IEHN report says. “Whether they are innovative entrepreneurs or old-line companies, they are grabbing market share, enhancing their branding, and otherwise prospering from public awareness of toxic chemicals in common consumer products.”

The consumer revolt against BPA is an object lesson in how the power of information is changing the world -- one bottle at a time.

Photo by garageolimpo.