BPA is used in the lining of an overwhelming majority of food and beverage cans, but it’s getting unwelcome attention from consumer groups.

The controversy about bisphenol-A, the plasticizing additive that’s part of the lining in almost all food and beverage cans, has been swirling for years now and shows no signs of abating. Bans have been instituted against BPA in baby bottles in Washington, Wisconsin and several other states, as well as Canada and the European Union. Oregon has become the latest state to take up the issue, with the state senate considering (and tabling as of press time) a ban on BPA in baby bottles, as well as reusable water bottles and children’s sippy cups. Up to now, no bans have been instituted against metal can linings, but it’s an issue being reviewed in several jurisdictions. A BPA ban was part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, with the support of U.S. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), but the ban was stripped from the bill before it was signed into law.

BPA is controversial because several studies have linked it to cancer and/or reproductive-system disruption in laboratory animals. Among other potential problems, it mimics the effects of estrogen, which could disrupt normal hormone development, especially in young children, critics argue.

However, as with most such health-related studies, serious questions exist as to applicability. The studies were based on giving the lab rats many times more BPA than a human being would possibly consume.

Absorption issues

One of the things that keeps the BPA controversy simmering is the emergence of reports on how much BPA absorption differs with various kinds of food and in different geographical locations.

Late last year, a report from University of Texas researchers described levels of BPA leaching into different name-brand products, with Del Monte canned green beans at the top of the list at 191 parts per billion (ppb). The study found “quantifiable levels” of BPA in 63 of the 105 foods it examined, but the levels did not fall into any pattern in terms of food type, with significant differences existing in the same kind of product from different manufacturers.

Another report that got a fair amount of attention came out in late February. This study, from Tufts University, stated that Americans have higher levels of BPA in their systems on average than Canadians. The study speculated on possible causes for the discrepancy, such as the presence of BPA manufacturing plants in the U.S., but reached no conclusions.

Canada has gone a little further than the U.S. in its regulatory approach toward BPA. Last fall, Health Canada declared BPA a Schedule 1 substance, but it has not taken the next step, which would be setting maximum allowable migration standards. The only major jurisdiction that has done that so far is the European Union, and its level is 600 ppb, more than triple the highest rate found in the Texas study-and a level that John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), calls “several orders of magnitude above reality.”

Eden Foods is the highest-profile user of metal food cans without BPA in the lining.

Kid stuff

The bans that have gone into effect so far have all been directed against consumer packaging aimed at infants and young children: baby bottles and sippy cups. This is partly because consumers are more sensitive to worries about such exposure, and partly because BPA is much easier to replace in such products than it would be in metal food and beverage cans.

The search for BPA alternatives has garnered some fairly high-profile attention. Companies like H.J. Heinz are taking part; on the Heinz website can be found the statement, “Although scientific bodies worldwide have concluded that minute levels of BPA are safe, Heinz is proactively exploring alternatives to BPA in response to consumer opinion.”

Other companies like Hain Celestial, General Mills and ConAgra have explored BPA alternatives, although the efforts are mostly on an exploratory or gradual level. General Mills, for instance, has announced plans to eliminate BPA from the canned tomato products in its Muir Glen line, but has no plans to remove it from its more mainstream canned products like Progresso soup. ConAgra has replaced BPA in some of its Hunt’s tomato products. “We will continue to evaluate non-BPA liners for other canned products in our portfolio,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

The problem is that, at this time, there simply isn’t an alternative that matches BPA in terms of either price or performance. The major can manufacturers who make up NAMPA have been looking for an alternative for years, but it’s a slow process.

“There’s no alternative currently that works for the wide range of products packaged in cans,” says Scott McCarty, director of corporate relations forBall Corp., the leading U.S. supplier of metal cans. “All the can makers have been looking at alternatives to epoxy can coatings. We’ve been doing it for at least three years.”

Ball markets an oleoresin that is the most-often used alternative, but it has its limitations. Eden Foods, a canner of organic foods based in Clinton, Mich., is currently Ball’s biggest customer for these cans, but even they can’t use it for tomato products, because the shelf life would only be about six months.

“People would see [news articles about Eden’s cans] and say, ‘Hey, you guys have a new coating! Why doesn’t everybody use this coating?’” McCarty says. “The issue is the same as we’ve said in other statements publicly, which is that that coating works for some products, in some situations, but not for all products.”

NAMPA’s Rost says he’s confident that the industry will not have to deal with draconian regulation restricting BPA. “We’re pretty confident, from a regulatory perspective, that all scientific bodies would come to that same conclusion” that BPA is safe is currently used, he says, noting that the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the European Food Safety Authority have all done recent studies reaching that conclusion.

Rost, however, acknowledges that winning the regulatory battle is only half the war. Consumer concerns must be alleviated.

“There are some levels of concern among consumers about BPA, but we don’t think that stems from balanced or scientific information coming out on BPA,” he says. “That balance and scientific information isn’t reaching consumers. We are working with our customers and the media to try to get a more balanced understanding of BPA. There are a lot of scientific studies that make big headlines, but when you really look at it from a scientific perspective-does it have any relevance to human health-often the answer is no.” F&BP