Will the FDA Finally Ban BPA?

A lawsuit is forcing the agency to make a decision about BPA in food packaging, and consumer health may fall victim to industry lobbying.

December 9, 2011

Come next March, canned peaches may have less BPA—but probably no less sugar.

Come March of next year, the toxic chemical bisphenol A, used in the linings of cans and other types of food packaging, may make its curtain call. Or not. On March 31, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will finally announce whether it will ban the chemical from all uses in food packaging, not just ban BPA in baby bottles, which the agency did earlier this year.


The agency announced on Wednesday that it would make its decision, after being sued by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for not acting on a petition filed more than three years ago. The group filed its petition asking the agency to ban the use of BPA in food packaging, yet never got an answer. "FDA could have agreed to ban BPA, rejected our petition, or accepted some parts of it and not others, but instead, it chose not to respond at all," wrote NRDC senior scientist Sarah Janssen, in a blog on the group's website. "We waited and we waited, but never got an answer." Legally, FDA is required to respond to such petitions within three months, but Janssen notes that 18 months passed before NRDC got a response, so "we had to ask the court to intervene just to get FDA to do its job."

Whether the FDA actually votes to remove BPA from food packaging remains to be seen, but given its reputation in regulating the chemical in the past, the outlook isn't bright. A three-year investigation of the agency by reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal revealed that FDA regulators deferred to industry scientists in the agency's original assessment that the chemical is safe, allowing scientists paid by chemical makers to write entire sections of the agency's review. The FDA also relied on just two industry-funded studies in its assessment. Those two studies are the only studies concluding that the chemical is safe, in contrast to hundreds of independently funded studies that have found that the chemical contributes to diabetes, obesity, heart problems, reproductive problems, infertility, hyperactivity, and some forms of cancer.

It will also be hard for the FDA to fight intense industry lobbying. Last year, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) added an amendment to the hotly debated Food Safety and Modernization Act that would have banned BPA from all food packaging. Her amendment was removed from the final legislation after the American Chemistry Council, a chemical-industry trade group, and the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, a trade group for processed-food makers, made it clear they would work to defeat the entire bill if it were included.

Consumer buying power carries a lot of weight, though, and some canned food manufacturers are already exploring (but not necessarily using) BPA-free alternatives to line their cans; currently Eden Organic foods is the only company using a BPA-free can lining, and only for its line of canned beans. In the meantime, these are the six most reliable ways to cut back on BPA exposure:

• Limit your consumption of canned or processed food by eating fresh or frozen produce and buying processed food in cartons, foil pouches, or glass containers. This is particularly important if you're pregnant, as research is finding that it's in utero exposure to BPA that causes the most long-term problems (which is why banning BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups isn't as helpful as you might think).
• Use a BPA-free reusable water bottle, such as an unlined stainless steel or a glass bottle.
• Decline cash-register receipts as much as possible. Thermal paper receipts are coated with high levels of BPA, which you can absorb through skin.
• Take good care of your teeth. Dental sealants contain BPA.
• If you aren't breastfeeding, feed your newborn powdered formula. Tests on prepared liquid formulas have shown high levels of BPA, but powders are known to be BPA-free.

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