Why Is It So Difficult for Food Companies to Go BPA-Free?

Campbell’s Soup Company is going BPA-free. Sort of. What's the holdup?

Campbell’s Soup Company is going BPA-free. Sort of. The company is beginning to use alternatives to Bisphenol-A—the chemical some studies link to reproductive problems and certain types of cancers—in its soup packaging, a company bigwig said at a shareholders' meeting last month. And it’s working to “phase out” the endocrine-disrupting chemical in all of its canned products. The BPA will be gone, the company promises, as soon as “feasible alternatives are available,” a Campbell's spokesman told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

By the end of this month, Campbell’s, along with companies like Heinz and ConAgra (both of whom have promised to eliminate BPA at unspecified points in the future), might not have a choice in the matter: The Food and Drug Administration has promised to decide by the end of the month whether to prohibit companies from using the chemical in food packaging.

Contrary to Campbell’s quest for "feasible alternatives," it is possible to go BPA-free now. Again, sort of. Japanese companies voluntarily cut BPA use in the late 1990s and early 2000s by switching to a different type of lamination. But in the United States, it’s still fairly tricky.

Eden Foods, the poster child for BPA-free canning, has used BPA-free lining in its bean packaging since 1999—so long ago that most people didn’t even know to think of the chemical as a problem. To eliminate the chemical, the company’s president, Michael Potter, had to convince one of his suppliers to fill an order for an older, resin-based can lining—and pay a premium for the product. “To this day, what we order is a special order,” says Pamela Stepka, the company’s food safety coordinator. “They have to clear the line at the factory.”

But the chemical interaction between canned food and can linings can vary, and the industry has been hesitant to abandon BPA in part because a lining that's safe for all canned products remains elusive.

Tomatoes are the problem child of the canned food industry. Because they're acidic, they’re more prone to break down can linings, shortening shelf life and increasing the opportunities for bacteria to grow. Eden Foods hasn’t found a supplier to provide BPA-free can lining that can handle tomatoes, so it offers tomatoes in glass bottles as a BPA-free alternative.

A few companies have figured out how to can tomatoes without BPA while retaining shelf life and safety, but they’re keeping those formulas to themselves. General Mills started using BPA-free cans in its Muir Glen line of organic tomatoes last year, but all the company will say is that it’s using an “approved non-epoxy alternative.” That alternative, General Mills says, also complies with FDA food safety regulations. But it likely contains other chemicals, which probably have not been tested and may pose other risks to human health.

Alternatives like glass come with their own risks—particularly to the food companies trying to sell their products. Campbell’s sold "soup-in-glass" for a period in the 1990s, spending $15 million on advertising for the new product. But unlike cans, soup-in-glass displayed the product on offer, and the sight of overcooked noodles and greyish chopped mushrooms would have pushed this customer, at least, to rethink the dinner menu. BPA, on the other hand, is invisible and thus easy for most customers to ignore. If companies need to get rid of it, they'll probably choose to keep their cans. So the quest for “feasible alternatives" continues.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user carol.fern

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