If there is one issue that can bring the food and packaging industries to uproar, it is an outcry over public safety. Such events, while usually overblown by the media, have the potential to spark panic among consumers and tarnish previously cherished brands by association. The latest public health storm is the controversy slowly building to a boil around bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical compound used widely in polycarbonate plastic bottles and in the epoxy lining of canned food and beverages since the 1960s.

BPA has received sporadic attention over recent years as some organisations have begun to raise concerns about the harmful effects this compound could have if it came into contact with humans (occurring after the substance has leached from packaging to the food or drink contained within). It is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that it interferes with or mimics the body’s hormones, possibly leading to health defects.

In BPA’s case, this takes the form of mimicking oestrogen, which has fuelled links to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Other problems highlighted by some reports include damage to foetal and infant neurological development, as well as stunting reproductive development. Foetuses and neonatal infants have been highlighted as being at particular risk, which is troubling as BPA is commonly used in the manufacture of baby bottles and infant food containers.

With the links drawn between BPA and numerous life-threatening disorders, it would seem an open-and-shut case that the compound poses a health risk when used in food contact applications and should be banned. The global regulatory community is, however, hardly in agreement on this issue.

“The US Environmental Protection Agency placed BPA onto its ‘chemicals of concern’ list in March 2010.”

BPA’s Canadian critics

A series of scientific, governmental and independent non-academic studies into BPA have raised questions about the safety of the compound. Leading the charge against BPA is the Canadian Government, which added the chemical to its list of toxic substances in October 2010, after research by Environment Canada deemed it potentially harmful to national health and the environment.

While not an outright ban, the move will allow Canadian authorities more freedom to restrict the importation, regulation and marketing of BPA and its associated products.

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Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, an environmental group prominent in the anti-BPA campaign, said that BPA’s inclusion on the toxic list would soon herald more dramatic restrictions on the chemical. “The risk assessment of BPA put together by our federal government is very strong in terms of its conclusions, so I think it’s a foregone conclusion that it will drive further action rather quickly…We are literally marinating in it on a minute-by-minute basis,” he said, as reported by Reuters last month.

South of the Canadian border in the US, the National Toxicology Program (established by the US Department of Health and Human Services) also harbour suspicion about BPA, based on the findings of its 2008 report into the chemical’s effects on humans.

The organisation noted that it had “some concerns” about its effect on brain development and behaviour in foetuses, infants and children at currently accepted exposure levels. It also expressed “minimal concern” for BPA’s effects on a child’s developing mammary gland, as well as “negligible concern” about foetal and neonatal mortality caused by BPA exposure in pregnant women. Although not going as far as Canadian authorities, the US Environmental Protection Agency in March 2010 placed BPA onto its “chemicals of concern” list, marking it out for future assessment.

Scientific evidence and BPA alternatives

Perhaps the most damning evidence against BPA comes from a follow-up study conducted in the aftermath of the first large survey of the chemical’s effect on humans (the Lang Study), published in January 2010. Although scientists found no causality between high levels of BPA in urine and a higher risk of diabetes and abnormal levels of liver enzymes, as previously suspected, the study concluded that surveyed humans with the highest concentration of BPA in their urine had a 33% higher risk of heart disease.

“BPA is used widely in polycarbonate plastic bottles and in the epoxy lining of canned food and beverages.”

Some industry analysts have also published material attempting to highlight the dangers of bisphenol A. In a 2009 report entitled “Seeking Safer Packaging”, Green Century Capital Management and corporate responsibility watchdog As You Sow brought together a case against the chemical’s use in packaging and highlighted companies it deemed to be not doing enough to limit its use.

The report claimed that the chemical industry was funding research designed to create uncertainty about BPA, noting that 100% of industry-funded reports found no adverse effects in BPA, while 92% of independently funded reports found some degree of adverse effects.

The report also noted that alternatives to BPA, such as polyamide and Tritan copolyester, were available and being used in some cases, but that the industry was not moving fast enough to phase BPA from products likely to cause exposure.

The increased controversy surrounding BPA has prompted many countries to take a stance against the use of the chemical in infant food and baby bottle products, including France, Belgium, Denmark and Germany.

Clare Dimmer, chair of charity Breast Cancer UK, explains why her organisation has taken a firm stance against BPA. “In a woman,” she explains, “hormones cause action within the body at trillionths of a gram and millionths of a gram, and EFSA is saying that BPA, which has a hormonal action, is perfectly safe in the hundredths of a gram.”

Dimmer and Breast Cancer UK are convinced that there is a scientific link between BPA exposure and the aggravation of breast cancer, as well as impacting the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment. She is disappointed that the UK Government has not taken more action against the chemical. “They [the government] really don’t like to make regulations and they don’t like to be seen to be clamping down on business, even if it means that public health is a major issue. As a charity, we would like to see them legislate.”

“BPA mimicks oestrogen, which has fuelled links to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

BPA’s defenders

The conclusions drawn about BPA following the Lang Study held little water with the European Food Safety Authority. In a report released in September 2010, issuing a statement that read: “Following a detailed and comprehensive review of recent scientific literature and studies on the toxicity of bisphenol A at low doses, scientists on the European Food Safety Authority’s CEF panel concludes it could not identify any new evidence that would lead them to revise the current tolerable daily intake for BPA of 0.05mg/kg body weight set by EFSA…The panel also states that the data currently available does not provide convincing evidence of neurobehavioural toxicity of BPA.”

This standpoint is echoed by several studies conducted into BPA around the world, including in the UK, the Netherlands and Japan. The main point in the argument against banning BPA is that a human would have to consume an unrealistic quantity of food with detectable levels of BPA for exposure to be considered a health risk.

A survey by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, released on 9 November 2010, found that around 30% of studied food items contained detectable levels of BPA, but still concluded the substance posed no risk to Australian consumers. This is because of the extremely low doses involved. According to Australian Associated Press medical writer Danny Rose, a three month-old child would have to consume at least 1kg of canned custard in a single day to surpass the safe BPA limit. And that was the product that was found to have the highest concentrations of the chemical.

There are also numerous industry groups vocal in their defence of BPA as a safe component of food packaging. A spokesperson for the British Plastics Federation (BPF), notes that the organisation welcomes EFSA’s restated stance on the safety of BPA, saying that BPF has “expressed its concern that interest in bisphenol A is spiralling out of control and sensationalised media reports have been the product of studies that have failed to provide reproducible results.”

“Research has shown that alternatives to BPA, such as polyamide and Tritan copolyester, are available.”

According to the BPF, “Plastics based on bisphenol A are perfectly safe and not only are they endorsed by the European Food Standards Agency but also by other independent bodies including the NHS [National Health Service] … The bisphenol A issue has become highly politicised in recent years and in some countries has become divorced from the reality and nature of its use.

“BPA is one of the most widely studied compounds in the world; extensive safety research has been conducted over the past four decades providing a large database of toxicological and exposure data available to assess human health concerns.”

But no matter what the scientific community decides on BPA, in the arena of consumer health, public perception is king. While debate continues to rage about whether the safe margin for BPA exposure in babies is too slim for comfort, many suspect that the public has already made up its mind about the chemical. After all, who would be willing to take chances with their child’s health?

The slow, pre-emptive industry shift away from BPA is already in evidence, with Nestlé announcing that it will phase out BPA from its US products within three years and Heinz promising to remove the chemical from its baby products in the UK. In the competitive food and beverage landscape, the BPA issue has become simply another way of differentiating oneself from the competition, and there is a growing sense that the scientific evidence behind the effects of BPA is rapidly becoming immaterial.