We are all still reeling from the BPA scare of 2008 that called for an early retirement to all plastic baby bottles, various canned foods, and an assortment of plastic bottles and such. For those of you left unaware of what exactly the BPA scare is all about, bisphenol A (also affectionately known as BPA) is a synthetic estrogen, as well as dangerous chemical, and most commonly used to strengthen plastic and line various types of food packaging (mainly, but not exclusively, cans). It has been linked to everything from cancer to bizarre cellular changes that cause all sorts of disease and neural complications. Activists and consumer rights advocates have been demanding a general ban on the chemical for years now, and just recently the FDA reversed its previous position on BPA (insisting that it was safe) and announced a renewed concern about the use of it in food packaging. Recent government studies estimate that the chemical has been found in the urine of more than 90 percent of the population, and this can’t be good.
However, it may be said that no one wants to get BPA out of the food supply more than U.S. foodmakers, who are being severely pressured to clean up their products or face a boycott and/or financial ruin. So it seems that everyone just wants to get the BPA out of the food supply, but strangely it still remains � sometimes in abundance. The complications that arise around eradication of BPA, which is in the epoxy linings of nearly every metal can on supermarket shelves and leaches into nearly everything it comes in contact with, resides in the hugely expensive R&D it takes to find a viable alternative.
As with many synthetic industrial materials, BPA is a relatively longstanding success story with years of faithful service to the food industry. Commercial use of BPA in food packaging took off in the 1950s after scientists discovered its ability to make plastics more durable and shatterproof. According to a recent Washington Post article (subscription required), by 1963, scientists were using BPA to create epoxy linings for steel cans, which held up under heat and other extreme conditions. Because the BPA linings extended the shelf life of canned goods, did not affect taste, prevented bacterial contamination and were relatively cheap, they became the industry standard by the 1970s. In essence BPA did the job of helping package and protect our food supply, until we realized this commendable job was potentially killing us.
Various companies like Heinz, Eden Foods and Vital Choice are trying to pioneer alternatives with BPA-Free packaging, but with very mixed results (remember the SIGG Bottle debacle of last year?). For instance, Consumers Union found trace amounts of BPA in baked beans made by Eden Foods, the only other U.S. company that says it has switched to BPA-free cans. Testing aside, some companies have even had trouble finding out whether their cans contain BPA, or not. In general, finding an alternative to BPA, something that doesn’t disintegrate, reduce shelf life, or interfere with taste has proven to be an enormous obstacle.
I am not pleading for patience on this one, nor am I coming out in favor of the gigantic food conglomerates that should have cleaned this problem up decades ago. However, I think this challenge begs the question, can we really have it all when it comes to canned and/or packaged foods. Ideally the answer would be yes. We just need a little time to perfect the technology, find a recyclable and sustainable packaging that doesn’t harm the environment or the consumer. I sincerely hope that innovation will prevail and provide a safe alternative to these not so nice cans we are currently dealing with. Until then, I am going to do what I can to limit my consumption of these products and adopt a “can’t do” attitude. How about you?