By Mollie Rosenzweig, Center for Progressive Reform
Consumers, take note: Last week, Clean Production Action published a troubling new report, Buyer Beware: Toxic BPA and regrettable substitutes found in the linings of canned food, on the presence of toxic bisphenol-A (BPA) in canned foods. The report, co-written by Breast Cancer Fund, Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Ecology Center, and Mind the Store Campaign, found BPA in the lining of the majority of canned foods sold by major retailers across the United States and Canada.
As the Center for Progressive Reform has discussed before, BPA can leach into food and poses a serious threat to human health. As an endocrine disruptor, BPA mimics estrogen in human bodies, which can ultimately play a role in many health problems, including obesity, diabetes, fertility complications, and some cancers. Its continued presence in can liners is a significant problem that calls out for effective, comprehensive action from federal regulatory agencies.
For the Buyer Beware report, researchers tested 192 cans in total and found that 129 of them, or 67 percent, contained a BPA liner. The selection of cans included major national brands like Campbell’s (100 percent of cans tested contained BPA), Del Monte (71 percent), and General Mills (50 percent), as well as private-label brands from stores like Target, Walmart, Kroger, and several dollar store chains.
Encouragingly, researchers found some brands (Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Homegrown, Hain Celestial Group, and ConAgra) that had successfully eliminated BPA from their can linings. Unfortunately, the report also found that manufacturers’ common substitute for BPA, bisphenol-S (BPS), did not alleviate human health risks and was just as toxic as BPA.
In addition to detailing the types and brands of canned foods that most frequently contain BPA, Buyer Beware also illustrates the distressing societal inequities perpetuated by BPA linings in cans. Canned food is an important source of vegetables in low-income communities because many residents lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables and because canned foods are available at a low cost and with an increased shelf life. The drawback: Consuming more canned foods exposes these individuals to BPA.
Buyer Beware found that dollar stores, discount retailers that play a vital role as food sellers in low-income communities, had not taken significant steps to eliminate BPA from canned foods: 83 percent of private-label cans from Dollar Tree and Family Dollar (Dollar Tree owns both stores) contained BPA, while 64 percent of private-label cans from Dollar General contained BPA. These rates are especially alarming in the context of one study Buyer Beware cites showing an inverse relationship between BPA exposure and income: individuals with the lowest income experienced the highest exposure to BPA.
Despite these serious concerns over BPA exposure, current U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations allow manufacturers to continue producing cans with BPA linings. The FDA regulates BPA as an indirect food additive, which is defined as a “substance that may come into contact with food as part of packaging or processing equipment, but [is] not intended to be added directly to food.” This broad category includes coatings for food packaging, paper and cardboard, and polymers. The FDA maintains a list of more than 3,000 chemicals approved as indirect food additives, including BPA, but these substances have not received much safety testing.
In 2012, the FDA made a small change in the way it regulates BPA by amending regulations and prohibiting the use of BPA in products intended for babies and young children. However, the agency makes clear that it implemented this regulatory change in response to manufacturers’ voluntary abandonment of BPA in baby products. In other words, the FDA maintains that its regulations prohibiting BPA in infant products do not relate to safety, but rather reflect an industry standard.
Indeed, the FDA’s current stance on the substance is that “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods.” Because of this, manufacturers and retailers can continue to provide consumers with BPA-lined cans, shielded by the fact that they are complying with agency guidelines. Further, the FDA’s position allows industry groups and manufacturers to resist eliminating BPA by attacking the science detailing the hazards BPA poses to people. The Grocery Manufacturers Association used this strategy in responding to Buyer Beware, issuing a statement questioning the science underlying the report.
Not all food companies are falling back on the FDA’s position that BPA is safe: companies like Campbell’s and Del Monte have made commitments to remove BPA from their canned foods. Although those commitments are commendable for responding to consumer preferences, they don’t come with concrete end points and they aren’t enforceable should companies miss their target phase-out dates. And while some brands may voluntarily remove BPA from cans because of consumer demand, retailers like dollar stores, which represent the only realistic shopping option for many low-income Americans, will have little incentive to eliminate BPA if they are not required to do so.
Buyer Beware serves to remind consumers and advocates alike that BPA persists in our food containers and that it may be doing the most damage to the most vulnerable populations. Market-based solutions have achieved some success so far, and until FDA adopts more stringent, required standards, consumers and advocates will continue appealing to retailers and manufacturers to reduce the use of this toxic substance in canned foods.