May 24, 2018
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Study: Harmful additives found in canned food

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

Environmental health advocates in Maine released a new national study earlier this week showing that canned foods and beverages absorb potentially dangerous amounts of bisphenol A, or BPA, from the cans’ epoxy lining.

Ingestion of BPA by infants, children and pregnant women has been linked to problems such as abnormal brain development, behavioral problems, premature onset of puberty and reproductive disorders, although the amount of exposure needed to cause such damage has not been fully determined.

“Congress should act to reduce BPA exposure by banning the chemical in food and drink containers,” the report’s authors recommend. Both the National Institutes of Health and the federal Food and Drug Administration are conducting additional studies of the additive’s safety, and pending legislation could restrict its use in food packaging and other consumer products.

In Maine, advocates said Wednesday that the study supports efforts to restrict the use of BPA in products designed for young children, such as plastic toys and baby bottles, although state law specifically exempts most food packaging from such regulation.

“BPA should be restricted immediately because all the information the state needs to move forward with alternatives already exists,” said Steve Taylor of the Maine-based Environmental Health Strategy Center and the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine.

But food packaging manufacturers say BPA is safe to use and is an important safeguard of food freshness and safety. In a statement issued Tuesday, a spokesman for the North American Metal Packaging Alliance criticized the study design and called its report a “grave disservice” to consumers.

The new report, “No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods,” was produced by The National Workgroup for Safe Markets, a national coalition of public health and environmental advocacy groups, including the Environmental Health Strategy Center. It was reviewed for publication by researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine and the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

Study designers solicited 50 cans of food from 19 states, including Maine, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Samples included canned products from home cupboards as well as items newly purchased from grocery store shelves. Canned tuna, vegetables, soups, soda and milk were among the foods sampled.

The unopened cans were sent to an independent laboratory in California where the edible contents of each can were tested for BPA content. BPA was detected in 46 of the 50 samples at levels averaging 77.36 parts per billion. Researchers determined that by regularly eating meals containing several of these food items, such as canned peaches, lentil soup and tuna casserole, a pregnant woman could raise her daily BPA intake to levels known to cause fetal damage in laboratory animals.

The report calls on the food packaging industry to develop safe alternatives to BPA and on Congress to reduce BPA exposure by banning the chemical in food packaging and supporting the overhaul of federal chemical exposure laws. In the meantime, it recommends that individual consumers purchase fresh or frozen foods when possible and demand BPA-free packaging from manufacturers.

In a prepared statement on Wednesday, John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, faulted the study’s small sampling size and the “clear agenda” of its designers. BPA-based epoxy coatings in metal containers effectively ensure the safety of canned foods, he said.

The industry is assessing alternatives in response to growing consumer demand, Rost said, but “without a thoroughly tested substitute, the report’s recommendation to forgo canned goods sacrifices a technology that has prevented food-borne illnesses for more than 30 years.”

Earlier this week, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine recommended that BPA be the first manufacturing chemical to be restricted for use in children’s products sold in Maine.

Taylor said the study supports the groups’ effort to name BPA as a “priority chemical” under the Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act of 2007. That law requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to identify by the end of this year at least two chemicals that pose a threat to children’s health that are present in products meant for children. Manufacturers who sell such products in Maine must submit information about alternatives to these chemicals. The DEP is charged with proposing product restrictions, although such restrictions must be approved by the Legislature.

The exemption of food packaging from the Kid-Safe law should be reviewed in light of the new study, Taylor said, since both children and pregnant women are at risk of BPA exposure from canned foods. Some manufacturers of food packaging, baby bottles and other products have voluntarily discontinued the use of BPA, he noted.

It could not be immediately ascertained on Wednesday why food packaging is specifically exempted from the Maine law.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said Wednesday that Snowe is eager to review the studies currently under way at NIH and FDA regarding the safety of BPA and is inclined to support pending food safety legislation at the federal level.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins believes Americans have a right to know that the products they purchase are safe and free of hazardous toxins, said a spokesman from her office. Collins, who co-authored 2008 legislation to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission, will “consider reasonable steps to protect consumers from dangerous chemicals,” the spokesman said.

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