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BPA: Can consumer revolt trump K Street?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

By Elaine Shannon

Don't underestimate the power of a consumer revolt.

No hearings. No votes. No PAC money. No lawyers. (Yes!) No lobbying. Advertising -- Facebook and Twitter, virtual and viral. And free.

When it comes to cost, you can't beat zero.

Effective? Hey, big companies can stand to lose political allies. But not customers.

That's why Massachusetts' strictly voluntary approach to reducing human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic toughener that also happens to be a synthetic estrogen, may pack more punch than you might expect. On Monday, the state Department of Public Health issued a warning to parents and caretakers to avoid BPA-based polycarbonate baby bottles and infant formula packaged in cans lined with epoxy resin, another material whose key component is BPA.

Publicity moves marketplace

The Massachusetts advisory lacks the force of laws enacted earlier this year by Minnesota and Connecticut legislators, who have banned BPA in baby bottles and other containers used by young children. The California legislature is considering similar legislation.

Even so, health warnings can spur consumer resistance that can change the marketplace faster than laws and regulations.

It's already happening in the case of BPA. More than a year ago, big retailers like Walmart and Toys-R-Us pulled BPA-based baby bottles from their shelves. Nalgene and Camelbak sports bottle makers ditched polycarbonate like a bad blind date. By March of this year, baby bottle manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop making bottles with BPA plastic.

Canned food industry resists retooling

The Massachusetts advisory goes further than legislative bans by targeting not only baby bottles and sippy cup but also canned food consumed by adults and children alike. Massachusetts public health officials have cautioned pregnant and breastfeeding women to limit their canned food consumption on grounds that BPA from food cans can cross the umbilical cord and reach the fetus and can also make its way into breast milk.

The food processing industry is dead set against retooling to eliminate epoxy can linings. "There is no readily available, suitable alternative to BPA-based can coatings that meets the essential safety and performance requirements for the broadest spectrum of foods now packaged in metal and glass containers," the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) said in a recent statement.

Actually, in 1998, major Japanese canners voluntarily switched to non-BPA can linings because of a consumer revolt sparked by high BPA urine levels among teens and young adults. Overworked students had been tossing back buckets of canned tea and coffee beverages, kept hot for days in vending machines. BPA-based plastics are unstable to begin with, and they leach more of the chemical into food or drink when they're heated, washed with strong detergent or subjected to acidic foods like coffee or tomatoes. Japanese researchers reported in 2003 that Japanese students' BPA urine levels had dropped "significantly" since canning methods changed.

U.S. and Western European food processors ignored the late-90's BPA flap, with the notable exception of small Eden Foods, which adopted alterative linings for its canned beans. (Eden still hasn't found a good non-BPA can lining for products with tomatoes.) Unsafe at any level? The Massachusetts action comes at a time when debate is intensifying over whether any amount of BPA or any other endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be considered "safe."

As we've reported in Enviroblog, several recent research studies have underscored the hazards of fetal and early life exposure to BPA. The chemical has been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, causing marked, sometimes permanent, changes in the brain, neurological and reproductive systems of laboratory animals. Researchers have also linked BPA exposure to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular problems.

Because of these findings, in June, in its first scientific statement ever, the Endocrine Society, numbering 14,000 scientific and medical experts in 100 nations, termed endocrine-disrupting environmental pollutants a "significant concern to public health" and called for tighter federal regulations to minimize their contamination of food and the environment. "Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure--indeed, any level of exposure at all--may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities," the society said, "particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses."

FDA action imminent

The federal Food and Drug Administration has so far declined to regulate BPA leaching into canned food, including infant formula, and other food contact items, including baby bottles. But soon after President Obama took office, senior FDA appointees said that they were giving BPA in food a fast track review. The Boston Globe reported yesterday that the agency is aiming to report on that review early as August 17. The FDA's decision could affact the California vote and, as well, U.S. Senate consideration of a House-passed bill offered by Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA, to require FDA to determine by the end of this year whether BPA in food presents "a reasonable certainty of no harm for infants, young children and pregnant women." If the agency can't offer that assurance, it must take steps to contain BPA contamination of the food supply.

Canners' dilemma

In Sacramento and in Washington, the stakes are huge. That guarantees fangs-and-claws industry lobbying -- unless and until the consumer revolt against BPA looms large enough to change the canner's calculations. In this economy, who can afford major customer losses?


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