Why the Food Industry is Fighting for BPA

The Senate food safety bill includes an amendment to ban the chemical from food packaging, but industry groups won't go down that easily.

>Bisphenol-A, the common plastic additive known as BPA, is the chemical bad guy of the moment. Since the National Toxicology Program released its report on the substance's health effects in 2008, even the most diehard Nalgene lovers tossed their trusted water bottles in the recycling bin. "BPA-free" quickly became a common advertising buzzword and even fashion statement.

But BPA's place in the pending food safety reform bill, S.510, isn't so black and white. The bill, which passed the House in 2009 and is about to hit the Senate floor, includes proposals to regulate small food producers in order to cut down on food contamination. Then, in the most recent amendment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed banning BPA from all food and beverage containers.

Feinstein's move raised hackles at food industry groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Claiming the ban would "undermine the FDA," the groups issued a letter threatening to withdraw support for the bill if it included Feinstein's amendment. This new roadblock will undoubtedly impede the bill's progress to the Senate floor, where it had been expected to end up before the Memorial Day recess.

The food industry response is the latest obstacle in a regulatory history that's been hobbled by BPA's powerful producers. In a Fast Company article last year, David Case described how five major U.S. companies used "Big Tobacco's tactics to sow doubt about science and hold off regulation of BPA." Industry-funded studies that touted the benign nature of the additive butted against independent ones that found it harmful to humans.

According to Case, only five companies manufacture BPA in the U.S.: Bayer, Dow, Hexion Specialty Chemicals, SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics), and Sunoco. In 2007, these companies made 7 billion pounds of the substance. Together, their BPA sales bring in more than $6 billion a year.

The food industry's threat to boycott the bill has kicked health activists, parent groups, and environmental non-profits into gear. These groups have issued statements reminding Congress that BPA restrictions have been enacted in five states and are under consideration in 13 more. They have also cited the Center for Disease Control report that 93 percent of Americans' urine contains BPA, most likely contracted from food containers.

Some countries and manufacturers have already taken action. In April of 2008, Canada became the first country to ban the chemical. In March 2009, six major U.S. baby bottle manufacturers stopped using BPA, and House and Senate leaders proposed the first legislation to ban it. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency declared BPA a "chemical of concern." Also in the works for this year is a World Health Organization assessment of the effects of BPA exposure on very young children and further research from the EPA and the National Institutes of Health.

But the science is not yet clear enough to convince all federal agents of the need to regulate BPA. Despite its own science board's doubts about BPA's safety, the FDA maintains its position on "the safety of current low levels of human exposure" to the chemical. It is no surprise, then, that Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, believes BPA regulation should be based solely on the FDA's assessment.