Canned Chemicals With Worries About BPA on the Rise, Food Manufacturers Are Turning to New Packaging

Even when canned foods claim to be free of bisphenol-A (BPA), they can still contain the chemical. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics—such as water bottles and baby bottles—and in the epoxy resins that line metal food cans, where they have been found to leach into food. Consumer Reports tested 19 common canned foods for a 2009 article and almost all of them contained BPA—even those labeled “BPA-free” and “organic.” The results showed that, for instance, Vital Choice’s tuna in BPA-free cans contained an average of 20 parts per billion (ppb).

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But the highest BPA levels were found in canned soup and green beans. Canned Del Monte Fresh Cut Blue Lake Green Beans had BPA levels from 35.9 ppb to 191 ppb; Progresso Vegetable Soup had levels of BPA ranging from 67 to 134 ppb and Campbell’s Condensed Chicken Noodle Soup had levels from 54.5 to 102 ppb.

“We believe there is enough (information) to warrant caution so we don’t have to ingest BPA and we ought to start mitigating these exposures,” says Urvashi Rangan, PhD, director of technical policy at Consumer Reports. “You do not know how much BPA you are going to get from any given can you pull off the shelf.”

Valid Concerns

BPA is a suspected endocrine disruptor—a chemical that can interfere with the body’s gland and hormone functions—and it has serious health impacts on lab animals. During pregnancy, high doses of BPA given to lab rats can reduce survival and birth weight of babies. At lower doses, according to a report by the federal National Toxicology Program, BPA impacts neural development and behavior and leads to potentially precancerous lesions in the prostate and mammary glands. Canada’s government officially declared BPA a toxic substance in October 2010.

Frederick S. vom Saal, a professor at the University of Missouri and a leading developmental endocrinologist studying BPA, says: “One of the things the chemical industry is doing is saying that BPA is a weak hormone. That’s like saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger compared to Superman is really weak.”

The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 93% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. In Japan, where BPA was voluntarily removed from the linings of food and beverage cans, levels of BPA fell by half in the population. “BPA in food packaging is clearly a major source of human exposure to the chemical,” vom Saal says.

Dr. Richard W. Stahl-hut, lead author of a 2009 study on BPA published in Environmental Health Perspectives, adds that the chemical does not leave the body as quickly as was once thought. “The official story is that BPA is gone from the body within 24 hours, but that did not always happen,” he says.

Changes in Food Packaging

With concerns about BPA growing, here’s how food suppliers are responding:

Eden Foods, which began using BPA-free cans for chili and bean products in 1999, is now packing pasta sauce in BPA-free glass jars. The amber-colored 14- and 25-ounce jars will hit the market “early in 2011” and will contain crushed tomatoes, pizza and pasta sauce. “We are moving about a third of our organic tomato crop into glass this year,” says Eden founder and president Michael Potter. Most Eden products are sold in natural food stores throughout North America, and company sales total about $50 million a year. Eden’s canner in Ontario, a business not owned by Eden, invested about $1 million to set up the new packing line.

Vital Choice, a company selling seafood and supplements over the Internet, learned firsthand the difficulty in keeping food products BPA-free. When Consumer Reports found that BPA was in Vital’s tuna, the company concluded that the magazine tested earlier versions of its cans. However, after a three-year examination that included checking where the fish was processed and speaking with chemists, Vital Choice has still not identified the BPA source. The company’s products now bear a label reading: “Our canned food is packed in containers certified by our suppliers to be free of BPA.”

Whole Foods packages 27% of its store-brand canned goods in non-BPA cans, says Joe Dickson, Whole Foods Market’s food, organic and environmental quality standards coordinator. He adds: “We have called in our major brand vendors as well as private label vendors to work cooperatively with us to identify alternative materials. My hope is that by working together and putting our suppliers on notice we will be creating a louder voice to talk to the can companies.” Dickson says he has not given a deadline to name- brand suppliers to come up with non-BPA alternatives.

General Mills has changed cans for some of their tomato items. General Mills’ Muir Glen tomato products are being packaged in cans that do not use BPA, according to a spokesperson. The company does not give information on sales by brand, but the Small Planet Foods Division, which includes Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm, totaled around $200 million in sales last year. Muir Glen brands are sold in natural and organic grocery stores as well as traditional supermarkets.

ConAgra has started packaging Hunt brand tomatoes in non-BPA lined cans. A spokesperson said that while the plain tomatoes are in non-BPA lined cans, the flavored tomatoes, such as garlic, have not been converted to BPA-free cans. The company is currently testing non-BPA liners in other products; they sell some $1.9 billion worth of canned food each year.

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