Mothers trumping regulators regarding BPA in food packaging

FDA must decide by Saturday whether to ban BPA in food and beverage packaging

Bloomberg NewsMarch 30, 2012 

— The Food and Drug Administration has until Saturday to decide whether mothers know best.

The agency is trying to determine whether bisphenol A, also known as BPA, should be forbidden in food and beverage packaging. Many consumers, particularly moms have been pushing for the change. Manufacturers of baby bottles and cups have already stopped using polycarbonate containing BPA.

An immediate ban on BPA, which since the 1960s has been deemed safe by the FDA, would hurt the $60 billion can industry, cutting profits at can makers Silgan Holdings, Ball and Crown Holdings, said Ghansham Panjabi, a Roseland, N.J.-based packaging-industry analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co.

Campbell Soup and HJ Heinz aren’t waiting for regulators to act and are taking steps to ditch the compound.

“In investment terms, it’s all about what the consumer thinks,” said Alexia Howard, a New York analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “Over time, we will see a decline in the use of cans.”

BPA, produced by combining phenol and acetone, mimics the female hormone estrogen and may affect the brain and prostate gland in fetuses and young children, according to the National Institutes of Health. It enters the body when it leaches from food and drink containers. BPA, used in coatings that extend the shelf life of canned foods, was found by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in almost all urine samples taken from 2,517 people in a 2003-2004 survey.

“The more I’ve learned about BPA and its hazardous effect on everybody, not only children, I have certainly changed my purchasing habits,” said Lori Alper, a mother of three boys in Bedford, Mass.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington environmental advocacy group, petitioned the FDA in 2008 to ban the chemical in food and beverage packaging. After getting no response, the council won a court settlement in December forcing the agency to reassess whether it should outlaw BPA. Douglas Karas, an FDA spokesman, declined to comment.

Campbell, the world’s largest soup maker, thinks BPA is safe, said Anthony Sanzio, a spokesman for the Camden, N.J. company.

“We also recognize there has been debate over the use of BPA,” he said. “We are committed to making the transition as feasible alternatives are identified for each product.”

Campbell’s U.S. sales fell 2.3 percent last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In December, Howard cut the company’s target price by $1 to $31 a share on the expectation that BPA concerns will continue to hurt revenue.

ConAgra Foods, the maker of Chef Boyardee and Slim Jim snacks, has removed BPA from some of its Hunt’s tomato products and is seeking alternatives for other lines, said Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for the Omaha, Neb., company. Heinz has also started the move to BPA-free cans, said Michael Mullen, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh company.

Silgan, North America’s largest can maker, gets 10 percent of its revenue from Campbell’s and 2.6 percent from ConAgra, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. About 10 percent of its products are BPA-free and it plans to continue switching to alternatives, Silgan Chief Executive Officer Tony Allott said last month.

An immediate U.S. ban on BPA in cans would cut Silgan’s per-share earnings by 21 percent, Panjabi said.

Beverage makers, however, aren’t joining the move to eliminate BPA voluntarily. PepsiCo, the world’s largest snack-food maker, referred questions to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a Washington industry group, which said BPA is safe for use in food packaging.

Global carbonated soft-drink sales were $175.1 billion in 2010, twice as much as canned food, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Industries.

About 4.7 million metric tons of BPA worth about $8 billion will be produced this year, one-quarter in the United States, according to a report by GlobalData, a London publisher of business intelligence. Three times as much BPA goes into polycarbonate plastics – used in items ranging from plastic bottles to DVDs – as is used to make epoxy resins for can linings and other applications.

The biggest U.S. producer of BPA is Saudi Basic Industries. Jose Ramon Tarzona, a spokesman for Sabic, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Bryan Iams, a spokesman for Bayer, the second-largest U.S. producer, said assessments by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority show BPA is safe.

Alper said it’s empowering to know that consumers’ decisions can prompt change even when regulators don’t act.

“It’s affecting the bottom line, which is what it really takes to make a change with a big corporation,” Alper said. “Moms have a lot of power.”

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