Seeking Food Safety, Getting Human Harm

Congress is set to consider a food-safety bill when it returns from the August recess. But the bill has so far stalled because of a controversial amendment to ban the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) from use in food packaging. Ironically, should this ban pass, it could actually make your food less safe.

Used for more than 50 years with no reported adverse health impacts, BPA provides many valuable health, safety and environmentally beneficial applications. It replaced glass baby bottles and cups to reduce the risks of broken glass, and it is more energy-efficient to make and transport. It also saves energy and water when used for highly reusable and recyclable five-gallon water jugs found in office coolers.

Perhaps most importantly, BPA-based resins are used to line aluminum and steel cans to reduce contamination of food from rust, E. coli, botulism and other dangerous pathogens. Lawmakers assume that manufacturers have new products to replace BPA, but there is no proven safe replacement.

You can’t mandate something that doesn’t exist. The packaging industry has been trying to remove BPA from their products because of public pressure, but they are having a 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 controversial amendment, drafted by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, would set up a bureaucratic waiver process through which companies would have to spend gobs of money to prove there are no better alternatives to BPA. But 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 in the hope that it doesn’t result in increased food-borne contamination.

Moreover, lawmakers cannot be sure that alternatives will be any safer. BPA has been studied extensively for decades with no evidence of any harm to humans, but it would take decades more to study a replacement product.

Instead of arbitrarily removing products from the marketplace, lawmakers should have to prove that products are truly dangerous, something never shown for BPA, even after a massive amount of government and privately funded studies around the world.

A joint Competitive Enterprise Institute-Cascade Policy Institute study has reviewed the science and shown that regulation isn’t warranted. BPA’s alleged risk to humans is mostly based on studies of rodents that were administered massive doses, often by injection. The relevance to humans who are exposed to trace amounts in food is highly questionable. Moreover, humans metabolize BPA quickly, while rodents do not. Many substances – such as chocolate – kill rats, but are safe for humans. But we don’t ban chocolate.

Scientific panels around the world have investigated BPA many times over. In Japan, the European Union, Canada, Norway, France and elsewhere, researchers have found no public health risk related to consumer exposure to BPA, and regulations that have been adopted are based on unfounded fears, not science. Even the Environmental Protection Agency states that consumer exposure to BPA is likely 100 to 1,000 times lower than EPA’s estimated safe-exposure levels – for both infants and adults.

Environmental activists claim that BPA may upset our endocrine systems because scientists call BPA “weakly estrogenic.” Yet there is nothing to show any human harm. After all, soy, peas, beans and a host of other healthy foods are also “weakly estrogenic.” Furthermore, the National Academy of Sciences says exposure to such natural sources found in food is 100,000 to 1 million times higher than exposure to similar substances in BPA.

BPA risks are on par with that of a few tablespoons of soy milk. Surely the increased risks of food-borne illnesses caused by a BPA ban should be the greater concern of Congress.