Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical used to make plastics and other materials used in many food packaging applications, from can linings to baby bottles (see my last post on BPA for some background). Many of us who have been working on the BPA issue for years were quite surprised, on Friday, to learn that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had changed its position on the chemical, admitting for the first time that they, too, have questions about its safety. For as long as they’ve had a position on BPA, the FDA’s position has been that it’s safe and suitable for food contact. With this announcement, the FDA admits that “on the basis of results from recent studies using novel approaches to test for subtle effects, both the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and FDA have some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.” To translate: There still isn’t conclusive evidence that BPA is harmful, but there are a number of question marks that need to be resolved through research – and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) was just awarded about 30 million dollars to pursue that research. In the meantime, the FDA has announced its interim position and the steps it is taking regarding BPA:
- FDA is taking reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA in the food supply. These steps include:
- supporting the industry’s actions to stop producing BPA-containing baby bottles and infant feeding cups for the U.S. market;
- facilitating the development of alternatives to BPA for the linings of infant formula cans; and
- supporting efforts to replace BPA or minimize BPA levels in other food can linings.
- FDA is supporting a shift to a more robust regulatory framework for oversight of BPA.
- FDA is seeking further public comment and external input on the science surrounding BPA.
— from FDA’s 1/10/10 report
We’re very pleased that the FDA has chosen to take this issue seriously – both by acknowledging that there are legitimate questions and by committing the resources and the money to begin to answer them. As always, we will carefully monitor the issue, provide our comments and perspective to the FDA, and keep our customers informed on any major developments. What We’ve Been Doing About BPA The FDA’s recommendations are consistent with the path that we at Whole Foods Market have taken over the past few years. Our position has been that there are enough questions about BPA that, when there are functional alternatives available, it makes sense to avoid the use of BPA. Back in February of 2006, we were the first major retailer in the U.S. to ban baby bottles and child cups made from BPA-containing polycarbonate plastic. More recently, we’ve been working very closely with our canned food suppliers to help them transition away from the use of BPA in food can linings. The FDA’s recent recommendations validate the steps that we’ve already taken and will continue to advance. Here’s a quick overview of what we’ve done on the issue:
- We have worked with our suppliers to strongly encourage the transition to non-BPA materials where functional alternatives exist. For example, the majority of the refillable individual water bottles in our stores were once made from polycarbonate plastic. Because of our work to encourage the transition away from BPA, nearly all of those bottles are now made from other materials, and we are working with our buyers and suppliers to finalize the transition away from polycarbonate water bottles completely.
- Our Quality Standards Team actively follows academic research and regulatory developments regarding the endocrine activity of substances present in plastics, including BPA. We work with academic experts and alternative plastic suppliers to stay on the leading edge of this issue.
- Polycarbonate plastic is still used in certain bottles and in aluminum can linings in our stores; we are currently working with manufacturers to strongly encourage the development of packaging that uses alternative materials. We have asked our major manufacturers of canned goods to present us with their plans for transitioning away from BPA-containing materials.
- Frustratingly, there are very few effective BPA-free cans available on the market. A few manufacturers have produced BPA-free cans, but the supply is very limited and they are only effective for a narrow range of foods. BPA-based epoxy lining is the industry standard for the lining of canned foods, with very few exceptions. This lining material works very effectively to protect the integrity of food. We are actively working with experts in the field to find an alternative material that works just as well without the presence of BPA or any other substances of concern.
- The manufacturing of cans in the U.S. is dominated by a small number of very large companies. Whole Foods Market represents a very tiny slice of the overall canned good market, so our leverage is limited. Despite the uphill nature of this battle, we are working with a group of like-minded companies and socially responsible investors to continue to push for alternatives. The FDA’s new focus should help us in this effort.
- To date, we have done more than any other U.S. retailer to inform our customers and take action on the issue. When appropriate, we have stopped the sale of certain products and/or provided information to our customers about the products.
Complex issues of food safety are seldom simple, and there are almost always trade-offs. BPA epoxy resin is the best lining for cans, in terms of protecting food integrity, extending shelf life, and ensuring the safety the food inside, but as we’ve learned, it may not be as safe as the industry once believed. Our goal is to continue to push for food packaging materials that protect food and keep it safe, without the leaching of BPA or any other toxic or estrogenic materials. We hope the FDA’s new direction on this issue — both in recommending the minimal use of BPA and in committing to researching the questions — will give new energy and momentum to the food industry’s transition away from BPA. For More Information: Dept. of Health and Human Services BPA Safety Page FDA’s BPA Update Page