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Substituting Toxic BPA in Food Cans with Transparently Safer Materials – Here’s How

Substituting Toxic BPA in Food Cans with Transparently Safer Materials – Here’s How

3/30/2016 Bev Thorpe
Consulting Program Manager:
Networks and Advocacy

If like me, you have a few canned foods in your kitchen – maybe some canned tomatoes for your pasta sauce recipe, or a can of baked beans or canned soup for the kids, you may read the labels  to know more about the ingredients inside. Unfortunately it’s not just the food contents that are important – but also the can linings.  A new report, Buyer Beware: Toxic BPA and Regrettable Substitutes found in Food Can Linings, reveals that two-thirds of 192 food cans tested in the US and a Canadian province still contain BPA in the linings and/or the lids. The chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) is associated with worrying health impacts and a recognized endocrine disrupting chemical. Hundreds of scientific studies have linked extremely small amounts of BPA, measured in parts per billion and even parts per trillion, to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, infertility, type-2 diabetes, obesity, asthma, and attention deficit disorder. 

Ninety-three percent of Americans have measurable levels of BPA in their bodies, with food packaging representing the largest exposure route.  This makes BPA-based epoxy resins a major concern because this chemical can migrate out of the can lining. In the last six years concerns around BPA led to its removal from baby bottles, infant formula packaging, and sports drinking bottles. So what is the food canning industry doing to replace BPA-based epoxy linings? It is hard for consumers to know because manufacturers and retailers do not put on their labels whether the can contains BPA.

As part of the Buyer Beware report, surveys were sent to brands and retailers asking companies if they had plans to eliminate BPA epoxy can linings, if they intended to use alternatives and if so, how they had screened these alternatives for safety.  Only a handful of companies (Amy’s Kitchen, Annie’s Organic, and ConAgra) have fully transitioned away from the use of BPA and are being transparent about the replacement materials they now use to line their canned foods. 

These same surveys also reveal how difficult it is for some food brands to get comprehensive information from their suppliers about the composition of can lining materials.  Brands are often told by their suppliers that full material disclosure is confidential and not one company could produce test data to show the material they use in their food cans had been transparently screened for chemical hazards.  This situation makes it impossible for food companies and retailers to be fully transparent with the public about the safety of their canned food.

Much has been written on the need for more transparency in supply chains because consumers and environmental health advocates are asking for assurance that companies are not moving to ‘regrettable substitutes.’ Identifying the safety of BPA alternatives is challenging, given the limited review and approval of packaging additives by the US Food and Drug Administration and the highly protected trade secrets in this product sector. Further, the report authors found very little data in the published scientific literature regarding the health effects of BPA epoxy replacements. What we did discover to our great concern is that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and styrene-based plastics are now being used as BPA-free can lining materials.  Styrene is a human carcinogen and PVC is made from the carcinogen, vinyl chloride monomer. To stimulate the move to truly safer alternatives the Buyer Beware authors  ask that national brands, grocery stores, big box retailers, and dollar stores:

  1. Commit to replacing BPA in all food packaging with safer alternatives, and establishing public timelines and benchmarks for the transition from BPA to safer alternatives.
  2. Conduct and publicly report on the results of “alternatives assessments,” using the GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals for assessing the safety of can linings.
  3. Label all chemicals used in can liners, including BPA and the alternatives to BPA, and demand that suppliers of canned food linings fully disclose safety data, so as to provide a higher level of transparency to consumers.
  4. Adopt comprehensive chemical policies such as the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals to safely replace other chemicals of concern in products and packaging.

To help support this move to informed substitution, Clean Production Action has established a special initiative to evaluate hazards of polymers used in can lining materials. Can lining manufacturers are specifically invited to take part in a GreenScreen® assessment of their materials and work with us to ascertain the human health and environmental impact of their can lining materials.   

One thing is for sure, health based advocates will continue to promote chemical disclosure and informed substitution. It is no longer sufficient simply to advocate for chemical restrictions without a roadmap to greener chemistry.  We look forward to working with suppliers in moving this sector to a faster adoption of transparently screened and innovatively safer materials.

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BPA Buyer Beware Report

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