There’s a new fight breaking out over the pending Senate food safety bill. An amendment proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ban the use of bisphenol-A, otherwise known as BPA, in food and drink containers is threatening to break up the broad, bipartisan coalition backing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510). Both the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), and the Chamber of Commerce, two major business groups who currently support S. 510, recently threatened to oppose the bill if it contained language banning the controversial chemical.
For months the main challenge for S. 510, which was unanimously voted out of committee in mid-November, has been lack of room in the upper chamber’s schedule. Pushback from small farmers, who say the new rules would be too burdensome, has also entered the fray, leading to a series of amendments to soften the bill’s impact on small, sustainable farms, but the legislation has maintained its bipartisan backing.
The controversy over BPA language may prove to be a major hurdle for the bill.
“Because adequate alternatives are not currently available, bills such as [Feinstein’s amendment] would aversely impact an exceptionally wide range of canned and other packaged food, from fruits and vegetables to soft drinks and beer,” said GMA’s president and CEO, Pamela Bailey, in a letter to both Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), sent earlier this month.
In addition to losing food industry support, adding BPA to the mix would invite fierce opposition from the American Chemical Council, and a slew of other powerful interests who would be economically impacted by a ban.
“I introduced my bill to ban BPA from being used in food containers because I feel very strongly that the government should protect people from harmful chemicals. I continue to believe that BPA should be addressed as a part of the food-safety overhaul and plan to offer an amendment to do so,” Feinstein told POLITICO last week.
The food industry argues that public health agencies should rule on the safety of the chemical, not Congress.
The FDA is re-reviewing BPA and is expected to complete its assessment within the next 18 to 24 months. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also launched a $30 million study on the safety low level exposure to the chemical.
“GMA welcomes FDA and NIH review of BPA,” said the letter to Senate leadership. “If the FDA or other competent regulatory authorities conclude that BPA poses a risk to our consumers, our industry will move quickly to address those risks.”
But consumer groups, like Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, who has been studying BPA for years, say the chemical poses a threat to public health and should be banned from use in food and beverage containers.
“We’ve maintained for a long time that BPA is something that should be banned from food containers,” Ami Gadhia, policy counsel for Consumers Union in Washington, DC, told Food Safety News in an interview, adding that, like Feinstein, Consumers Union does not want to undermine the food safety bill’s chance of garnering enough votes in the Senate.
Whether Feinstein’s BPA language will make it into the managers package–a group of amendments agreed upon by both sides before the bill comes to the floor–remains unclear.
Sources on the Hill and consumer groups working on the issue agree that very few people have answers on the status of the language. If the provision is offered as a stand alone amendment it is also unclear what final form it will take, or whether it would have enough support to be adopted.
When asked whether Consumers Union would consider dropping support for BPA language to aid the passage of the food safety bill–which would essentially update federal food safety laws for the first time since 1938–Gadhia expressed optimism that ultimately a compromise could be reached.
“At the end of the day, we all want to advance food safety,” she said. “Both issues are very important.”