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Pressure builds to ditch chemical in canned foods
By Steve Law, The Portland Tribune (December 15, 2011)
The genie’s out of the bottle in Oregon – a bottle made with bisphenol A.
In late-October, Multnomah County enacted Oregon’s first restrictions against products containing bisphenol A, a widely used chemical compound often called BPA. The ban on BPA-laced baby bottles, sippy cups, and reusable water bottles will have little impact on what’s sold in the county, because retailers have largely stopped selling them.
But county commissioners’ unanimous decision gives momentum to broader campaigns against BPA and other toxic chemicals in our environment, especially in the food supply.
It’s only a “baby step” in the right direction, says Maye Thompson, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility’s environmental health program director. However, she says, “I think it’s going to make people ask, ‘What’s next?’ ”
There are rumblings that other counties may follow Multnomah County’s lead and adopt local BPA bans, says Renee Hackenmiller-Paradis, Oregon Environmental Council’s environmental health program director, and a leader of the statewide anti-BPA campaign. Those could put more pressure on the Legislature to act, as businesses often dislike facing a patchwork of local regulations.
When the Legislature returns to Salem for a brief session in February, it’s unlikely that anti-BPA forces will push the same bill that passed in the Senate this year but was blocked in the House, says state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland. House Republicans still have a 30-30 tie with Democrats and could, as in the 2011 session, prevent a House floor vote on the bill.
Instead, Keny-Guyer and other environmental-minded lawmakers may pursue a broader toxics bill modeled after those passed by Washington and other states.
“It’s kind of ridiculous to go through the Legislature to pick off chemical by chemical that is harmful to kids,” Keny-Guyer says.
Washington’s 2009 law requires authorities to create a laundry list of toxic chemicals that are of greatest health concern. Once the list is fashioned, the law will require manufacturers to disclose the presence of those substances in children’s products.
“I believe Oregon should be looking to pass similar policies,” says state Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, who led the campaign against BPA in the Legislature and chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Other products targeted
The anti-BPA campaign is rapidly spreading to other products where there’s substantial human exposure to the substance, such as cash register receipts and canned foods and beverages.
Bisphenol A helps make plastic products durable and shatter-resistent, and has been widely used in bottles, computers, CD cases, bicycle helmets, baby pacifiers and other items.
BPA also is used in canned food and drink linings to prevent corrosion, contamination and spoilage. It has proved highly effective at warding off bacterial infections such as botulism.
However, BPA is an endocrine disrupter that mimics the effects of estrogen in the human body. Though there are disputes among scientists – largely between independent and industry-funded researchers – scores of studies have shown potential health hazards from exposure to BPA, including breast and prostate cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Canned food battle looms
Canned food is shaping up as the next major battlefield. “We need to get it out of the food supply,” Thompson says.
But bisphenol A has safeguarded the canned food supply for four or five decades, so it’s “no light matter” trying to find a reliable substitute, says Peter Truitt, president of Salem’s Truitt Brothers Inc. “We’re not going to run the risk of making someone ill,” he says, referring to BPA’s role in preventing food-borne bacteria. “We know that risk. It brings you to your knees overnight.”
However, studies show BPA in canned goods leaches into the food and beverages, particularly in foods that are fatty and highly acidic, such as tomato products.
A 2011 research project by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration detected BPA in 71 of 78 canned foods it tested. “It is well established that residual BPA . . . migrates into can contents during processing and storage,” the FDA reported.
A 2011 report by the Breast Cancer Fund tested canned foods and found widely varying amounts of BPA, even in health foods. It was detected in Spaghettios, Chef Boyardee pasta and meatballs, Earth’s Best Organic Noodlemania Soup and Anni’s Homegrown Cheesy Ravioli.
The Oregon agricultural industry vigorously opposed the limited BPA ban before the Legislature, perhaps fearing that canned foods might be next. But many companies aren’t waiting for the government to act.
In May, Fred Meyer corporate parent Kroger declared a goal to provide BPA-free cans for all of its private-label products, and asked its suppliers to provide them.
“We know it is a concern for our customers,” says Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill, even if the science is still inconclusive about the level of danger from BPA in canned goods.
Kroger’s suppliers are testing a variety of products, but even glass jars aren’t a satisfactory alternative, she says, because the metal lids contain BPA. “There’s no timeline on this because there’s still not a good solution,” she says.
Some manufacturers have found viable substitutes, though they typically cost more. Eden Foods began selling organic canned foods in BPA-free cans in 1999. Muir Glen, owned by General Mills, began shifting to BPA-free cans for its tomatoes last fall.
Closer to home, Oregon’s Choice Gourmet, based on the central Oregon Coast, is offering albacore tuna in BPA-free cans. The company hopes to do the same in the next year for its canned salmon, crab, sturgeon, oysters and shrimp.
The Portland-based Food Alliance, which offers a third-party sustainability certification for farmers, ranchers and food processors, will update its criteria used to rate food packaging companies next year, says Scott Exo, executive director. One likely new criteria will be whether the companies use BPA and other chemicals in their packaging, Exo says.
Labeling at issue
Truitt Brothers, Oregon’s largest canned-food producer, is an industry leader in trying to provide BPA-free cans.
Truitt hasn’t found a way to offer canned greened beans without BPA. But it is offering canned pears and four types of canned legumes – black beans, garbanzos, kidney and navy beans –in BPA-free cans to some customers, including local stores specializing in more healthy food offerings.
“The consumer has already decided that if they have alternatives to BPA, they’re going to choose the alternatives,” Truitt says.
Despite those breakthroughs, Truitt isn’t ready to attach a BPA-free label on those canned goods, though it might be a marketing advantage and help fetch a higher price.
The company wants to make sure it’s doing it right before making any product claims, Truitt says, noting that modern testing technology can now detect the presence of BPA at levels down to parts per trillion.
BPA is so ever-present that it can show up in tiny levels even in products where it wasn’t added during the manufacturing process, Exo says. “Everybody’s worried about legal liability,” he says.
Truitt, Exo, and others are working with the Oregon Environmental Council to develop a possible protocol for a BPA-free seal that might be applied to canned goods, Truitt says.
He’s confident the group will succeed, giving consumers assurances about the lack of BPA in labeled products.
“If the market trend is moving away from BPA,” Truitt says, “that’s where I want to be.”
Library, Freddies dump BPA in receipts
More than a year ago, an environmental committee of Multnomah County Library employees asked the library to replace the thermal receipt paper containing bisphenol A that was used for checkout and hold slips at the library. In the most recent year there were 11.7 million checkouts in the library system, and 2.7 million holds placed on library materials, says library spokesman Jeremy Graybill. That’s a lot of paper slips being handled by a small group of workers at the library.
Last December, the library switched to using BPA-free paper for checkout receipts and hold slips, after finding it cost only $1 extra for a $48.95 box of 50 rolls of paper. Something that cheap to safeguard the health of county workers and patrons was a “no brainer,” Graybill says.
In May, Fred Meyer’s corporate parent, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., announced that it would stop using cash register receipts with BPA.
“We told our suppliers it had to be gone by the end of the year,” says Melinda Merrill, Fred Meyer spokeswoman. “It’s gone now.”