UPDATED: ConAgra, Nestlé and GMA respond

BPA substitutes in canned food ‘not clear’ - EWG

BPA has been declared safe by the FDA and EFSA

Many companies that have stopped using bisphenol A (BPA) in canned food did not reveal what they are using instead, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The environmental health research and advocacy organization said this would slow scientific study of possible hazards of the substitutes.

Only 13 brands gave a description of alternative coatings including vinyl, polyester, oleoresins in combination or alone, modified polymer material, food-grade epoxy and an epoxy-based lacquer or a titanium dioxide-based lining.

EWG analyzed 252 canned food brands by 119 companies, between January and August 2014, to see which packed food in cans contained BPA.

The group recommended consumers limit or avoid canned foods and policy makers regulate labelling to ensure BPA in canned food does not exceed 1 part per billion.

EWG also launched a consumer petition saying BPA has been linked to breast cancer, reproductive damage, developmental problems and adding it wanted to ‘put pressure’ on firms to stop using it.

Who uses BPA, who does not and why?

A total of 31 brands – 12% of the sample – used BPA-free cans, 34 brands used BPA-free cans for one or more products and 78 used BPA-lined cans for all products.

Reasons for not going BPA-free included alternatives must pass regulatory approval, flavour concerns, BPA-free cans in short supply in some countries where products are packed and high cost and suitability of alternatives, said EWG.

Companies in the survey include Amy’s Kitchen, Hormel Foods, Nesté USA, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Pinnacle Foods Group, The Hain Celestial Group, Target Corporation and Tyson Foods.

Nestlé USA said it was committed to removing BPA from all canned products across its portfolio in the US. 

“We have already eliminated BPA from all of our infant and toddler foods and we expect to complete the full transition of our product portfolio to non-BPA food contact packaging in 2016, where suitable safe alternatives exist," said a spokeswoman.

“As we’re moving through the transition, we are conducting extensive testing of packaging alternatives/BPA replacements for our Nestlé Carnation milks and Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin, to assure our rigorous product quality, safety and shelf life standards continue to be met.”

Hormel Foods directed us to The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) when asked what it does.

GMA said the report ignores the fact that scientists and regulatory agencies who have reviewed BPA have concluded it is safe for use in food packaging.

"The Grocery Manufacturers Association supports the FDA’s advice to consumers that food and beverages in packages using BPA as a food safety barrier are safe and that packaging that may contain trace amounts of BPA are safe for use with food," it said. 

"We agree with FDA that there is no need for consumers to change their purchasing or consumption patterns, advice to consumers that the FDA reaffirmed in November 2014."

EWG grouped firms in four categories – from the ‘best players’ (e.g. Amy’s Kitchen, Tyson Foods) who are using BPA-free cans for all products/brands to the ‘worst players’ (e.g. Hormel Foods, Pinnacle Foods), those companies with brands which use BPA for all products.

It also had a ‘better players’ section (e.g. Eden Foods, Whole Foods Market) for companies using BPA-free cans for some products and ‘uncertain players’ (e.g. Kraft Foods, Campbell Soup) which included 32 of 54 companies who did not respond to requests for information and who did not make clear if they were using BPA in cans.

EWG said Amy’s Kitchen uses BPA-free cans for its entire line of Amy’s canned goods.

“The company has reported that its tests for BPA on its products with the new liner reveal a detection level of less than 1 part per billion, a reasonably rigorous standard that accounts for the likelihood that some food itself can test positive for BPA contamination, or the chemical can be introduced during processing.”

The ‘better and uncertain players’

EWG said Eden Foods came in its ‘better players category’ for developing a BPA-free oleoresin lining.

“Eden Organic Beans are packed in steel cans coated with a baked-on oleoresinous c-enamel that does not contain the endocrine disrupter chemical, BPA. Oleoresin is a natural mixture of an oil and a resin extracted from various plants, such as pine or balsam fir,” said the firm last year.

Eden added the use of oleoresin could increase manufacturing cost by 21-34% per can and there are doubts about its suitability for high acid food types.

EWG said ConAgra Foods (BPA-free cans for 1 of 13 brands), Del Monte Foods (BPA-free cans for some products in some lines) and General Mills (BPA-free for its Muir Glen brand) ranked at the lower end of this section based on information collected at the time.

ConAgra Foods has contacted us and provided an update from EWG's data.

"ConAgra Foods began converting its packaging to non-BPA several years ago, and the vast majority of its portfolio is in non-BPA packaging. All packaging for its food will be non-BPA by July 2015," it said.

The firm added depending on the product, it uses several alternative non-BPA liners. For example, for some of its cooking spray oils and some of its desserts, it uses a non-BPA laminated steel liner.

For the ‘uncertain players’ section, the group said 109 brands by 54 companies did not make clear whether they used BPA.

The reason typically given was that the brand or company contracts with hundreds of suppliers to produce and package its products, and the suppliers obtain their cans independently,” said EWG.

“Some companies said that some products may have multiple suppliers, and they would need specific product information to determine the supplier for any particular product.”

NAMPA response

The North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA) said it was ‘disappointed, but not surprised’ the EWG released a report based on the ‘false premise that current uses of BPA in food contact applications are not safe’.

Dr John Rost, NAMPA chair, said it is a recycling of past errors and misleading statements and provides no new information on hazard or exposure.

“As expected, EWG cherry picked studies to support its flawed perspective on BPA while ignoring the weight of scientific evidence supporting its safety in food contact applications.” 

NAMPA said despite EWG touting the report as a “game changer,” it reinforces companies choose BPA-based liners because global food authorities have deemed them safe and provide the highest level of food protection.    

The Center for Accountability in Science said canned foods, particularly vegetables, fruits, and fish, are a key source of valuable nutrients to many consumers who lack the ability to purchase fresh or frozen alternatives. 

"Scaring Americans about the safety of canned foods needlessly discourages consumers from choosing these healthy options," it said.

"EWG’s report offers little helpful information to consumers trying to understand the safety of items on grocery store shelves."

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