Behind the Brand Curtain
BPA in Canned Food: Regulation of BPA
In January 2010 the FDA announced that it had “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children” (FDA 2010). It launched new efforts to reduce consumption of BPA from food by directing industry to replace BPA-based plastic in baby bottles, to shift away from BPA-based can linings for liquid baby formula and to explore alternative packaging for canned foods. FDA officials said that the agency had limited authority over BPA and other food packaging materials in use before 2000 and asked the canned food industry to submit information voluntarily about the use of BPA in food packaging (FDA 2010).
The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s powerful lobbying arm, and the food canning industry have spent millions of dollars defending the use of BPA. The chemical is still permitted in most food containers, including cans. Despite ongoing campaigns by advocacy groups and lawmakers, only 13 states, the District of Columbia and a few local jurisdictions have banned BPA in reusable food containers or children’s cups and baby bottles. In 2011, EWG was instrumental in getting BPA banned from children’s foodware in California (Assembly Bill 1319, 2011). In 2012, the FDA denied a petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council to ban BPA in all food and beverage packaging (NRDC 2012).
To date, Maryland, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada and Vermont are the only states to have established BPA limits on the sale and distribution of one-time use food containers, including cans, of infant formula or baby food (NCSL 2015). Maryland has banned baby formula containing more than 0.5 parts per billion BPA (House Bill 4, 2011; Senate Bill 151, 2011). These state laws and FDA’s concern prompted the formula industry to stop using BPA in formula packaging by 2013 (FDA 2013).
Despite progress to lower infant exposures to BPA through food and bottles, neither the FDA nor any other U.S. regulatory agency restricts the level of BPA allowed in food and other consumer products for children and adults. Other countries, however, have established specific limits on the amount of BPA allowed in any packaged food. The European Union’s limit is 600 parts per billion of BPA per kilogram of food, and Japan’s limit is 2,500 ppb (European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) 2010, FAO/WHO 2009). Both values are much higher than the amount of BPA typically detected in canned foods (Kannan and Liao 2013) and too high to protect health or even have a meaningful effect on food production practices.
Citing BPA’s adverse effects on breast development, France has suspended production, import, export and marketing of BPA-laden packaging that comes into direct contact with food (USDA 2013). France set its safe level of BPA exposure at 0.0025 ppb per day, thousands of times lower than any other government’s. In the late 1990s Japan implemented an industry-wide shift of can coatings from epoxy resin to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) film or epoxy resin with lower BPA levels (Kawamura 2014). That led to a significant decrease in the levels of BPA in the bodies of people tested (Matsumoto 2003). It is difficult to determine a level of BPA that poses no risk to children, pregnant women and other populations based on current scientific knowledge. EWG believes that replacing BPA in can linings would lower the amount of BPA in food to less than 1 part per billion, and that development would be a significant improvement.
The FDA continues to support the use of BPA linings in food cans. Last December it released an updated safety assessment that proclaimed that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods” (FDA 2014). The agency based its determination on the results of a 90-day toxicity study. While FDA scientists concluded the study found no low-dose effects of BPA in test animals, critics point out that the animals FDA reared as an unexposed or “control” group had BPA exposures in line with its two lowest dose groups (Hunt 2014). Furthermore the agency is rushing to judgment. The 90-day study was a pilot for a multi-year, multi-million dollar toxicity investigation called Clarity-BPA, which is a partnership between the FDA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and dozens of academic researchers. The consortium presents an unprecedented scope for evaluation of BPA toxicity. FDA’s December announcement was a particularly bizarre move, considering the abundance of studies currently pending completion.
While the FDA regulates food packaging uses of BPA, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates many other uses. In 2009, the EPA named BPA one of 10 chemicals and chemical groups for which it would be creating action plans (EPA 2015a). Notably, as part of the BPA action plan, the EPA has proposed rulemaking under the Toxic Substances Control Act to identify BPA as “a substance that may present an unreasonable risk of injury to the environment on the basis of its potential for long-term adverse effects on growth, reproduction and development in aquatic species at concentrations similar to those found in the environment” (EPA 2015b). However, this proposed rule has been stalled in the Office of Management and Budget for several years (EPA 2015c).
While the proposed rule languishes in the OMB, last May California secured a landmark victory when the Developmental and Reproductive Toxicant Identification Committee of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment voted unanimously to add BPA to the state’s Proposition 65 list. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better know as Prop 65, requires a clear and reasonable warning before exposing an individual to a carcinogen or reproductive toxin on the Prop 65 list. After weighing expert testimony from public health groups including EWG, the committee classified BPA as a female reproductive toxin. It plans a separate meeting to determine which of the products that contain BPA must bear Prop 65 warning labels. The Prop 65 designation could prompt some manufacturers to switch to BPA-free can linings, even before formal labeling rules take effect.