Bisphenol A (BPA) is once again taking center stage in the media after a new report was released on the chemical earlier this week.  The National Workgroup for Safe Markets, a coalition of US public health and environmental health non-government organizations, released the report No Silver Lining: An Investigation into Bisphenol A in Canned Foods after conducting a study that aimed to quantify BPA levels in common canned goods. Following the release of the report several mainstream media outlets featured stories on the report calling into question the safety of canned foods.

What the New Study Says

In this most recent study, researchers tested levels in 50 canned goods collected from 20 research volunteers throughout the US (19 States) and Canada (1 Province).  Typically, volunteers donated 1 canned good from their home pantry and a similar, matched product purchased from their local grocery store.  Results of the study demonstrated that 46 of 50 products contained BPA, with an average of each product containing 77.36 parts per billion (ppb).

The Risks of Eliminating Canned Food

This report supports the recommendation that all Americans should avoid canned foods in an effort to minimize BPA exposure.  This type of absolute recommendation can be problematic for many reasons.  Eliminating canned foods entirely may be impractical or impossible for many limited income Americans and may also introduce further health risk.  Canned foods are a great way from Americans to achieve their daily goal of fruit and vegetable intake, they are relatively inexpensive and shelf stable.  For the millions of Americans who can’t afford fresh produce or don’t have the accommodations for fresh food (i.e. refrigerator, freezer) canned goods are a good alternative.  Eliminating this option for produce intake may create a diet deficient in essential nutrients, creating an additional, possibly unnecessary, health risk.  In addition to the dietary impact, history demonstrates that there are likely economic repercussions of eliminating an entire group of food products.  Industries that rely on canning for delivery of safe, shelf-stable food may incur undue financial harm from individuals avoiding their products.

The Role of BPA

BPA is a compound used in food packaging that helps preserve food quality and prevents spoilage.  It has been safely used in food packaging to extend shelf life and preserve flavor for over 40 years. If you are new to the discussion on BPA you should check out IFIC’s resources to familiarize yourself with more in-depth information regarding what it is, why its used and what credible science currently says about its safety:

Science and the BPA Controversy
Questions and Answers About Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Consumer and advocacy group interest in food safety is a positive indication that people are eating and shopping mindfully.  In an era of increased prevalence and incidence of diet related chronic disease, this renewed interest in food, food packaging and ingredients is a good sign as interested, informed consumers are much better equipped to make healthy decisions.  The key in aiding these interested consumers in food purchasing and consumption decisions is to communicate scientific information effectively while also balancing the risk, benefit and feasibility of recommendations provided.

Unfortunately, in the case of BPA, more science is needed to draw a definitive conclusion on its relationship to any previously perceived health risk.  Currently the information that exists is based on animal studies or epidemiologic evidence that doesn’t employ a study design that can conclude a causal relationship between BPA and human health risk.  This study demonstrated that BPA does exist in some canned foods and the reasons for its presence in some items and not others could not be determined.  The study does not, however, create an argument for a cause and effect relationship between BPA and a specified health risk.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence relative to human health risk, the canned food industry is looking for BPA alternatives.  In a statement made to MSN following the release of the report, Dr. John Rost, chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance Inc., expressed the industry’s disappointment with the lack of context provided by the workgroup in the details of their findings and the interest of the industry in finding consumer acceptable alternatives to BPA.  While the industry is seeking alternatives, right now no substitute exists and the report’s recommendations to forgo canned goods could possibly introduce a new set of unintended consequences related to foodborne illness.

Experts agree that this study and the subsequent report underscore the need for additional research on the human health effects of BPA exposure.  Industry and public health officials should support such research in an effort to draw definitive conclusions about BPA.  Until that happens, the human health risks of BPA exposure remain largely unfounded and all actions taken to avoid products packaged using BPA are speculative and likely overly cautious.

Editor’s Note:  “Can the Report, Not the Facts on BPA” originally appeared on the International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food Insight Blog on May 19, 2010.  It was written by Tony Flood & Lindsay Maurath.