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This week, the Senate may vote on an amendment to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that could undermine the integrity of the U.S. food supply.
The amendment - which is also a stand alone bill, S. 593 sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA - would ban the use of a substance called bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging.
BPA has many valuable health, safety, and environmentally beneficial applications. BPA–based resins line food containers—e.g., aluminum and steel cans—to reduce contamination of our food from rust, E-coli, botulism, and a host of other dangerous pathogens.
It replaced glass baby bottles and cups to reduce the risks of broken glass, and it is much more energy efficient to make and transport. It also saves energy and water when used for highly reusable and recyclable 5-gallon water jugs found in office coolers.
It has been used for more than 50 years without producing any documented health problems among consumers, yet environmental activists have called for bans, based on claims that it leaches into food and poses serious health risks.
Many state legislatures have begun banning its use for any food packaging or food containers (i.e. baby bottles and sippy cups) designed for children under three. On the extreme end, Feinstein’s bill would ban all food containers and packaging made with BPA and set up a process for the agency to consider bans on other packaging products in the future.
Lawmakers should seriously consider whether the alternative products will be safer. After all, are we willing to risk more children and adults suffering from E-coli or getting cut from broken glass?
Supposedly, some of the state-level legislation addresses that issue by demanding that manufactures replace BPA products with less toxic, safer alternatives.
But you can’t mandate something that might not exist. In fact, the packaging industry has been trying to remove BPA from their products because of public pressure. But they are having a very difficult time finding safer alternatives.
In fact, one representative noted to the Washington Post: “We don’t have a safe, effective alternative, and that’s an unhappy place to be … No one wants to talk about that.”
The Feinstein bill allegedly deals with that problem by setting up a bureaucratic waiver process through which companies would have to spend gobs of money to prove there are no better alternatives to BPA.
Proving a negative is, well, pretty much impossible. It will be easier for manufacturers to simply use inferior, more expensive packaging and then simply cross their fingers with the hope that doesn’t result in increased food-borne contamination.
Instead of arbitrarily removing any product from the marketplace, lawmakers should have to prove that it is truly dangerous—something that has not been shown for BPA even after a massive amount of government and privately funded studies around the world.
A joint CEI-Cascade Policy Institute study overviews the science showing that regulation isn’t warranted. BPA’s alleged risk to humans is mostly based on studies of rodents that were administered (often by injection) massive doses.
The relevance to humans who are exposed to trace amounts in food is highly questionable. Moreover, humans metabolize and pass BPA quickly, while rodents do not. Many substances—such as chocolate—will kill a rat but are safe for humans. But we don’t panic and ban chocolate.
Scientific panels around the world have investigated BPA many times over. In Japan, the EU, Canada, Norway, France, Canada and more—researchers could not find any public health ills related to consumer exposure to BPA.
Any regulations they have passed have been based on unfounded fears, not science. And according to EPA data, consumer exposure to BPA is likely 100 to 1,000 times lower than EPA’s estimated safe exposure levels—for both infants and adults.
Still environmental activists claim that BPA may upset our endocrine systems and create developmental problems for kids. They make these claims because BPA is what scientists call “weakly estrogenic.”
Yet that does not mean it has any effect when we are exposed to trace amounts. After all soy, peas, beans, and a host of healthy foods have that same attribute. But according to data from the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to such substances naturally found in our food is 100,000 to 1 million times higher than exposure to similar substances in BPA.
BPA risks are most probably lower than a few tablespoons of soy milk—which is extremely low. Surely, broken glass and increased risks of food-borne illnesses—which could be the result of government BPA bans—should be the greater concerns.